In Martin Luther’s day, no one sang in church. Correction: no one sitting in the pews sang. Singing and praising God was restricted to the priests. Congregational worship is a Reformational concept that we take for granted today, though perhaps not for much longer. As church worship services become more and more about the mesmerizing light show, the explosive guitars, and the thumping bass, congregants are slowly closing their mouths and simply watching. In theory, music is still a communal event. In practice, the muted and entertained congregation has given up trying to participate.
Below is the foreword to Luther’s first hymnal, a publication completely unique in its day. Luther’s love for music and his desire to see it prosper as a biblical and edifying means of church worship are both the providential blessings of a God who wanted to give the music back to his people. There is no special class of worshipers, whether priests or music leaders. All should join together in one voice, preferably an audible one, to worship the God of the Universe. To borrow a phrase from Conor Oberst, the music produced by many worship bands is a “deafening pleasure” that silences the congregation. Do we want to revert back to the days when music was only participated in by a small minority? Give music back to the people!
Notice as you read how Luther saw music as a vehicle of training children and adolescents. He also believed hymns were meant to transport biblical cargo:
That the singing of spiritual songs is a good thing and one pleasing to God is, I believe, not hidden from any Christian, for not only the example of the prophets and kings in the Old Testament (who praised God with singing and playing, with hymns and the sound of all manner of stringed instruments) but also the special custom of singing psalms, have been known to everyone and to universal Christianity from the beginning. Nay, St. Paul establishes this also, 1 Corinthians 14, and orders the Colossians to sing psalms and spiritual songs in their hearts, in order that God’s word and Christ’s teaching may be thus spread abroad and practiced in every way.
Accordingly, as a good beginning and to encourage those who can do better, I and several others have brought together certain spiritual songs with a view to spreading abroad and setting in motion the holy Gospel.
These, further, are set for four voices for no other reason than that I wished that the young (who, apart from this, should and must be trained in music and in other proper arts) might have something to rid them of their love ditties and wanton songs and might, instead of these, learn wholesome things and thus yield willingly to the good. Also, because I am not of the opinion that all the arts shall be crushed to earth and perish through the Gospel, as some bigoted persons pretend, but would willingly see them all, and especially music, servants of him who gave and created them. So I pray that every pious Christian may bear with this and, should God grant him an equal or a greater talent, help to further it. Besides, unfortunately the world is so lax and so forgetful in training and teaching its neglected young people that one might well encourage this first of all. God grant us his grace. Amen.
-Martin Luther, Wittenberg Gesangbiichlein (1524)
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