Our hymns shape our church

Aug 27, 2018 by

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“Out of the fullness of the heart, the language of each mortal springs.
If you would truly know a man, just listen to the songs he sings.”
— Amish hymn writer John Paul Raber, Songs from Within (1991)

The first version of the collection of Anabaptist songs that later became known as the Ausbund was published in 1564, several decades after the beginning of the free church (as opposed to a state church) movement. The Ausbund has gone through various revisions and expansions and is still the standard hymnal used by many conservative Old Order Amish groups in the U.S.

The 51 hymns published in the first edition were written and compiled by a group of Anabaptists in a notorious prison in Passau, believers who were persecuted by the Reformed (Protestant) state church, incarcerated by Swiss authorities and were awaiting torture and/or death. Singing these heartfelt pieces together was a vital part of what kept them encouraged and unyielding under severe pressure to deny their new-found convictions.

Here is an example of one these very earliest hymn texts, “O Herre Gott in deinem Thron,” composed by Michael Schneider, a tailor. It was recently translated and put to verse by Gerald Mast, professor of communications at Bluffton College (Ohio), and is to be sung to the tune of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” an already popular hymn of Schneider’s time:

O Lord God ruling from your throne,
your laws and statutes gave us
a way to live for you alone
released from selfish blindness.
But now through Jesus Christ
we who have been baptized
know only one command:
to love without demand;
God’s call to gracious service.

Against all strife and tyranny
God’s love for us is given.
This love endures defenselessly,
though death and devil threaten.
Because of Jesus Christ,
our discord harmonized.We fear not any foe;
when love is all we know,
no conflict can dishearten.

Sisters and brothers let us take
the path to joy from sorrow.
The cross of costly friendship make
our past and our tomorrow.
We follow Jesus Christ,
who gave for us his life;
came here with us to dwell,
delivered us from hell,
through fierce and faithful mercy.

This hymn has elements similar to Luther’s well-known “A Mighty Fortress” in its portrayal of the church’s spiritual conflict with evil. However, Luther strongly defended the use of the sword when seen as necessary to combat the enemies of the faith, which to him clearly included Anabaptist advocates for a free church and complete freedom of religion.

I’m especially impressed by how Schneider’s text combines an affirmation of courageous faith with a spirit of unwavering solidarity with fellow believers, and am struck by how different it is in tone and content from many of the hymns, choruses and gospel songs we sing today.

We can note this shift already in 1803, when Lancaster Conference Mennonites published their first collection of German hymns to supplement, and soon replace, the Ausbund. They included far more songs from the Pietist tradition than those by their Anabaptist forbears. The title they gave the new hymnal, “Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch” (or Impartial/Non-Sectarian Song Book) suggests that they were already aligning themselves with a more generic form of Protestantism, marking a shift in focus toward a more personal and inward experience of faith rather than the more communal and discipleship-focused tradition of their forebears.

In another version of a hymnal also called “Eine Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch,” published for use in Amish churches such as the one in which I grew up, there were likewise a majority of hymns borrowed from a variety of other faith traditions.

This is not a bad thing in itself, and could be seen as a sign of openness and ecumenism to be commended. But do we make all of our choices of new hymns deliberately and wisely, and with a realization of how what we sing, even more than the sermons we hear or the authors we read, may form and shape our faith and the faith of our children?

Note, for example, the difference in emphasis in one of the many gospel songs I grew up with and learned to appreciate, like “My Jesus, I love thee,” written around 1862 by William R. Featherstone, a young Methodist who died at age 27, found on page 522 of our current Hymnal, a Worship Book:

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign;
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I love Thee because Thou hast first loved me,
And purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree;
I love Thee for wearing the thorns on Thy brow;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

In mansions of glory and endless delight,
I’ll ever adore Thee in heaven so bright;
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow,
If ever I loved thee, my Jesus ’tis now.

I am certainly not against singing this kind of personal testimony song, as long as we remember that the Jesus of the gospels is about far more than being the object of our devotion because he offers us “mansions of glory and endless delight.” Rather, he is one whose way of life we are to incorporate and demonstrate here on earth, by God’s grace, as fellow members of God’s “colony of heaven.”

I’m eager to see what the editors of our next Mennonite and Brethren hymnal come up with.

Harvey Yoder is an ordained pastor and member of Family of Hope, a small Virginia Mennonite Conference house church congregation. He blogs at Harvspot, where this first appeared.


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