Martin Luther, the Hymn-Writer

On July 6, 1415 John Huss – the Protestant Czech – was burned at the stake for his faith. He said at the stake before he was burned, “Today, you are burning a goose however, a hundred years from now, you will be able to hear a swan sing, you will burn it, you will have to listen to him. In a hundred years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform can not be suppressed.”

Exactly 102 years later, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther was nailing a piece of paper to the community bulletin board – the church door in Wittenberg. We refer to that document of theological protest the 95 Theses. And it was that moment that God used to help launch the Reformation.

luther-martin-2It is not an overstatement to say no one had a greater impact on the church than Martin Luther. Many people throughout church history have talked reform; Luther lived reform. Some even claim that outside of Christ no one has more books on the shelf about or by Martin Luther. In short, no Luther, no Reformation.

There are many legacies with Martin Luther – his preaching of justification by faith, his condemnation the Roman Catholic Church, and his translation of the Bible into German. One such legacy that is often forgotten is his contribution to the ministry of music and his encouragement of corporate singing.

In 1526 at the age of 33, Luther began to rearrange the typical church service. Luther believed the congregation should take a more active role in the service and he wanted this activity to be more singing.

Luther said, “We need to remove hymn singing from the domain of monks and priests and set the laity to singing. By the singing of hymns the laity can public express their love to the Almighty God.”

In fact, Luther even had his own congregation practice their songs during the week before the services on Sunday!

This led Luther to begin writing hymns for his congregation to sin. He wrote a total of 36 hymns. Not many of them are sung today, but you have probably heard of “All Praise to Thee, Eternal God” or “Away in a Manger” or “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; those are the most well-known of Luther’s music compositions.

Luther played the flute and sang in multiple choirs and was nicknamed “the nightingale of Wittenberg.” Luther loved church music. Luther once said, “I can say without timidity that there is next to theology no such fine art on earth that could push music off to the side … to prepare a peaceful and joyful heart.”

One of Luther’s critics – Johann Eck – said of Luther’s hymn-writing: “The Reformation was brought into existence more through Luther’s songs than through Luther’s writings.”

On this day, October 31, Reformation Day, I exhort you to thank God for men like Martin Luther. Who knows if the church ever would have started singing together in their worship services? I, for one, am delighted that we do.


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