What we see is not always what we get. In reading Robin A. Leaver’s book, The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg that is how I felt about Martin Luther. I always imagined him to be a brash, impatient, and rigid figure. Mostly due to how he is characterized by others and while I’m sure these qualities may be largely true, they are not always true.
One area of Luther’s life that did not exemplify some of these harsh qualities was seen in his view of congregational singing. Leaver quotes several letters of Luther that display immense patience and care for proper worship.
Luther knew that the reformation was an uphill battle. He also knew that one way to spread the reformation was not merely through preaching, but also through singing. This change, however, would require a long period of time since the church and common people were not immersed in biblically grounded music. Leaver quotes Luther stating,
“I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular for the people to sing . . . until the time comes that the whole Mass is sung in the vernacular. But poets are wanting among us, or not yet known, who could compose pious and spiritual songs” (p. 68).
In the meantime, Luther knew that several Trinitarian hymns could still be sung in the worship service. He did not want to rush the quality of hymns for public worship. Rather, he sustained what could be trusted (Trinitarian hymns) and prayed for God to bring about the change.
Luther also understood his limitations. Leaver quotes Luther stating, “I myself do not have so great a gift that I can do what I would like to see done here [writing the psalms in modern vernacular]” (p. 74). This kind of patience and humility was encouraging to see. Luther, with his harsh reputation was patience and humble in this area of the reformation.
Luther and the Priority of Congregational Singing
Luther also knew that congregational singing was important for the entire congregation. Singing Scripture was a means of teaching and spreading reformation doctrine. Leaver quotes Luther stating,
“[Our] plan is to follow the example of the prophets and the ancient fathers of the church, and to compose vernacular psalms . . . for the people, that is, spiritual songs, so that the Word of God may be among the people in the form of music. Therefore we are looking everywhere for poets . . . I would like you to avoid any new words or language used at court. In order to be understood by the people, only the simplest and the most common words should be used for singing; at the same time, however, they should be pure and apt, and further, the sense should be clear and as close as possible to the Psalm” (emphasis added, p. 74).
This aspect of Luther’s desire shows his heart for the word to be among the people in every facet. For Luther, it was not enough to write Christian doctrine, or preach Christian doctrine, but it was necessary for the church to sing healthy and accurate Christian doctrine.
Luther was also weary of introducing too many songs to the congregation. He wanted there to be a steady introduction and diet of songs for the people. Leaver states that early on he wrote songs with the same metric timing so that they could be sung to well-known melodies. This level of patience shows his emphasis to have the congregation absorb the content.
This is a refreshing aspect of music ministry especially considering current trends. Today, songs might be produced at a fast paced that does not allow for the congregation to absorb them. We also have songs produced that might be great for listening or musicianship, but should never been sung in congregational contexts.
Lets Keep It Going
For Luther, he understood the importance of congregational singing. He was patient and humble. He understood his limitations and wanted the focus on sound Christian lyrics with a congregational emphasis.
As protestants, we should learn and apply the heart of Luther’s approach to music. We should view music as a means to spread and solidify Christian doctrine. It should possess rich Christian lyrics, expressed in simple language, for the purpose of congregational singing and encouragement.
To my fellow protestants, we must keep it going. Hope you and your fellow church members are faithfully singing the Scriptures!