Reading Time: 3 mins

The Legacy of Strasbourg Hymnals

Reading Time: 3 mins

Strasbourg’s hymnals are especially relevant to American Lutherans because much of what we experience in our churches comes to us from Strasbourg.

I have previously written about the 500th anniversary of Lutheran hymnals coming from Wittenberg (even if the first hymnals were published in Nuremberg and Erfurt). This year is also the 500th anniversary of another type of hymnal that originated in the Southwest German city of Strasbourg. The German Church Song Encyclopedia (Das deutsche Kirchenlied or DKL) accurately does not classify Strasbourg’s early hymnals as Lutheran or Reformed but instead uses the more generic term: Evangelical. This is because of Strasbourg’s ambiguous position on Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, which shifted more than once during the first half of the sixteenth century. The first evangelical hymnal from Strasbourg was probably printed not long after the first Lutheran hymnal, the Achtliederbuch (Eight Songs Book).

Strasbourg changed its services from Latin to German years before this change was made in Wittenberg. In early 1524, Strasbourg’s preachers began to lead services solely in German and distribute the Lord’s Supper in both kinds. Shortly after this change, printers in Strasbourg began to print the order of service that they observed in the city’s churches. 

Strasbourg’s printers did not coordinate the printing of their hymnals with Martin Luther, as generally happened with the more Lutheran type of hymnal or with the local reformers. Strasbourg’s chief reformer, Martin Bucer (1491-1551), commented that the Strasbourg service had been “printed without our knowledge, by those zealous for money.” [1] The man who printed the vast majority of Strasbourg’s early hymnals, Wolfgang Köpfel (d. 1554), agreed with Bucer’s assessment. In a preface to his hymnal, he wrote that he had printed the service without the reformers’ knowledge because of popular demand. [2]

Strasbourg’s hymnals are especially relevant to American Lutherans because much of what we experience in our churches comes to us from Strasbourg. This is partly due to Strasbourg’s slow turn towards orthodox Lutheranism over the last two-thirds of the sixteenth century. 

The churches in Strasbourg were the first Protestant churches to recreate what had been the medieval sacrament of confirmation. Bucer preferred to turn Strasbourg into an Evangelical Christian society rather than turn the church into a sectarian group separated from the larger society along the lines of the radical reformation that rejected infant baptism. However, Bucer had concerns that infant baptism made Christianity too easy, and he desired that Christians be personally committed to their faith. He found a solution to this conundrum in confirmation. Infants could be baptized with the understanding that they would later be instructed in the faith and make their own profession of faith. If you’ve ever heard the mistaken theological claim (from a Lutheran point of view): “Baptism is God’s part, and confirmation is our part,” you’ve heard a good summation of the original Bucerian Protestant view of confirmation. 

Vernacular singing during vernacular services is the norm today. In the Western Christian church, this practice originated in Strasbourg in 1524.

Eventually, confirmation spread to more truly Lutheran churches. Hopefully, confirmation is now understood as a teaching about what God has done for us in baptism and all his promises and that this period of instruction occurs during a time in life when the devil is using new temptations and responsibilities to lead us away from baptism. I will let the reader judge whether or not Lutherans have succeeded in spreading this truly evangelical understanding of confirmation or if Bucer is still winning.

The form that Strasbourg’s printers used for their hymnals also eventually prevailed. Unlike the hymnals radiating out of Wittenberg, which were simply collections of hymns, Strasbourg’s hymnals began with the order of service for Strasbourg’s churches. The earliest hymnals were nothing but the order of service, with hymns included. Eventually, more hymns were added after the liturgical section. This format has proven itself effective and is now nearly universal.

One other aspect of early hymnals is worth considering. Almost all of these early hymnals were printed in the octavo format (8o). This is a broadsheet that has been folded three times into eighths of the original size. Octavo hymnals are roughly half the size of the quarto (4o) hymnals that one finds in the pews of modern American churches. For example, eleven of the thirteen known hymnals containing Strasbourg’s Sunday morning services printed in the early years of 1524-1526 were printed in octavo format, one in quarto, and one in tiny vicesimo (24o). To this day, German hymnals are still printed in octavo. Anyone who has ever held a German hymnal knows how much more satisfying they are to use than our clunky quarto format. The original hymnals were not as thick as any modern hymnals. They were very portable and could be carried in a pocket. People could bring them to church and use them in the home or when traveling. 

The creation of hymnals was a key aspect of the Protestant Reformation, and this legacy continues into the present day. Vernacular singing during vernacular services is the norm today in most churches throughout the world, even most Roman Catholic Churches. In the Western Christian church, this practice originated in Strasbourg in 1524. Such singing was successful there, in part because of the wide availability of hymnals.

[1]  Martin Bucers Deutsche Schriften,16 vols, ed. Robert Stupperich (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1960f.), 3:405.13-14

[2]  Strasz- || burger kirchen || ampt / nemlich von Jnse- || gu[n]g d[er] Eeleüt / vom Tauf || vnd vo[n] des herre[n] nacht || mal / mit etlichen Psal || men / die am end des || bu(e)chlins / ordent- || lich verzeych- || net sein. Strasbourg: Köpfel, 1525, Aijr.