Reading Time: 4 mins

Martin Luther's Reformation Hymns

Reading Time: 4 mins

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these early Lutheran hymns – and their physical availability in hymnals – in the piety of common people living in Lutheran towns and territories.

While 2023 was the 500th anniversary of Lutheran hymns, this year marks the 500th anniversary of Lutheran hymnals. After finishing his translation of the New Testament at the Wartburg, Martin Luther began composing German-language hymns in 1523 and requested that his friends do the same. Luther explained the need for vernacular hymns "so that the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music." [1] He did not create the tradition of Christian vernacular singing from scratch. Most of his tunes, and even a good deal of the poetry, came from medieval sources. Often, Luther took existing German religious songs and expanded them into several stanzas that could be sung during worship services or in the home. Other hymns had tunes that were variations on previous melodies used with Latin liturgical singing. 

Originally, these early hymns were printed on large, uncut broadsheets. In 1524, Luther and Paul Speratus created the first Lutheran hymnal, collecting eight hymns in a booklet that has come to be known as the Achtliederbuch (Eight Songs Book). It was published in Nuremberg, but for the purpose of marketing, its title page claimed that it was printed in Wittenberg. Later in the year, two printers in Erfurt raced to print their extremely similar Erfurt Enchiridia, which expanded the collected repertoire from eight to twenty-five hymns. In the same year (probably later), Wittenberg's Johann Walter published his five-part Geystliche gesangk Buchleyn (Spiritual Song Booklet) for choral singing. 

Most of the hymns in these first hymnals had their first verses notated, with the other verses printed as text alone. The notes were diamond-shaped with stems. They were a variation on the medieval notation known as Hufnagel Noten (hoof nail notes), whose solid diamonds and stems look like the nails used to attach horseshoes to hooves. 

The Achtliederbuch began with two hymns that became Lutheran classics and are widely used to this day, "Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice" (Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein, by Luther) and "Salvation unto Us Has Come" (Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, by Speratus). "Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice," perhaps Luther's most free composition paired with an existing folk tune, begins by celebrating the victory that God has won for us through the costly death of Christ. It then looks back at the sinner's condition without Christ, opening with the loyal and colorful English translation, "Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay, death brooded darkly o'er me, sin was my torment night and day…" The next verse explains that good works did not help the sinner out of this situation and then provides the most direct reference to Luther's doctrine of the bondage of the will in Lutheran popular piety: "free will against God's judgment fought." The German original says ever more directly: "Der frei' Will' haßte Gott's Gericht," the free will hated God's judgment. The fourth verse announces that God heard the sinner's cry and planned for "my salvation." The Father speaks with the Son (verse 5), "from sin and sorrow set them free; slay bitter death for them." Verse six announces that the Son obeyed the Father and led the devil into captivity. The hymn concludes with four verses of the Son speaking comforting words to the redeemed. This includes the line, "I am yours, and you are mine (verse 7)," which rhymes internally in German, "Denn ich bin dein und du bist mein." "Dear Christians" concludes with Christ's promise of the Holy Spirit (verse 9) and a reminder to remember his teaching (verse 10).

"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" is a sort of catechism in the form of a hymn. It touches on the central theological claims of the emerging Reformation. The hymn immediately announces that salvation has come by God's grace alone and that good works cannot help with our salvation (verse 1). [2] The second verse declares the wrath of God and then mentions that "most of all," the law demands the Holy Spirit, but the flesh cannot produce spirit. The third verse mocks the "false, misleading dream" that God gave the law so that we might freely live according to his will. Instead, the law is a mirror that shows us our sins. Verse five says that the law must still be fulfilled, and that is what Christ has done. Technically, he "fulfilled (erfüllet)" the law rather than "obeyed it," as a popular English translation puts it. Christ paid for the sinner's salvation, and Christ's death became the Christian's life (verse 6). Verse seven then speaks of the power and truth of God's Word. In non-metrical translation: "I carry no doubts, because your Word cannot deceive; now you say that no one should despair, you would never lie about that." Verse eight describes the proper relationship between faith and works, with works following faith. The following verse describes the law striking down the conscience, but the gospel then comes to strengthen the sinner by telling him to crawl to the cross. The following verses continue to discuss law and gospel, and faith and works until verse thirteen provides Trinitarian praise and begins a paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer that is completed in the final fourteenth verse. 

With the publication of Luther's German Mass in 1526 and the Church Orders that followed in various territories, several of Luther's hymns were sung repeatedly by Lutheran congregations every Sunday. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these early Lutheran hymns – and their physical availability in hymnals – in the piety of common people living in Lutheran towns and territories. 

Many of these early hymns were translated into Scandinavian languages and beyond and supplemented by native artists. For example, the first texts from Luther translated into Hungarian were six of his hymns in 1536. [3] Thanks to the work of several excellent translators, English-speaking Lutherans continue to sing many of Luther's hymns on a regular basis. 

The hymns were so important for the spread of the early Lutherans' evangelical teaching and instilling this faith in weekly and daily life that a book on the subject bears the appropriate title, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation. [4] In the sixteenth century alone, Lutheran hymnals were printed in the millions. There were no denominational publishing houses, and congregations did not buy hymnals. The phenomenal output of hymnals was the collective business decision of German printers based on the popular private demand for these books.

Many orthodox Christian hymns were written before the Reformation, and many have since been written by non-Lutheran Christians. Lutheran hymns stand out because they have most consistently proclaimed the gospel. Often, Lutheran hymns do this with theological depth. Perhaps the best examples are the two hymns discussed at length above. All Christians would do well to learn as many Lutheran hymns as possible.

[1]  Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 49, p. 68.

[2]  Many versions of the hymn in English-language hymnals do not have all 14 verses from the original hymn. Therefore, the numbering of verses might be different in different hymnals. For example, the Lutheran Book of Worship makes the original verse three into verse two. 

[3]  Zoltán Csepregi, “Luther in Hungarian,” Lutheran Quarterly 37:1 (Spring 2023): 73-83, 73.

[4]  Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005). Readers might also be interested in the newly released Lutheran Quarterly Book: Robin A. Leaver, A New Song We Now Begin: Celebrating the Half Millennium of Lutheran Hymnals 1524-2024 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2024).