Hymn Brackets
Paul Koch

In 2011, students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul organized a hymn bracket, similar to the kind we see every year for NCAA March Madness. Just like the basketball tournament, the hymn bracket included sixty-four entries. A hymn required so many nominations to make the tournament, and then hymns were paired against each other, with students voting on their favorites. In the first round, “A Mighty Fortress” squared off against “Ah, Holy Jesus.” In the Final Four, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” faced “Be Thou My Vision,” and “Beautiful Savior” took on “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”

In the end, “Be Thou My Vision” claimed the top prize. The bracket was all for the sake of fun, but I couldn’t help noticing how poorly Lutheran hymns had fared. “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word” was thumped by “Blessed Assurance,” with 74 percent of voters preferring Fanny Crosby to Martin Luther. The King of Chorales, “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying,” got hammered by “Silent Night,” which picked up 76 percent of voters. “Thy Holy Wings” took the worst beating of the tournament, with 84 percent choosing “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” A few Lutheran hymns squeaked into the second round, but only “Beautiful Savior” made it into the Sweet Sixteen, and then lost in the Final Four.

For some time now, I’ve suspected that Lutheran congregations aren’t that familiar with or enamored of Lutheran hymns—beyond a few such as “A Mighty Fortress”—and the hymn bracket provided a bit of confirmation. The tournament was hardly a scientific, comprehensive measurement of today’s hymn-singing, but Luther Seminary continues to be the largest seminary of the largest Lutheran denomination in our country. And their student body digs “Be Thou My Vision.”

When I ask my own parishioners about their favorite hymns, or when I’ve asked colleagues about their congregations’ favorites, the answers usually include “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “How Great Thou Art,” “I Love to Tell the Story,” and “Lift High the Cross.” Those hymns were written by evangelical Anglicans and members of the Plymouth Brethren and the Swedish Mission Covenant Church. I imagine the favorites among Lutherans would not differ much from those named by members of other denominations. On one hand, it demonstrates the ecumenical nature of hymnody. Any Christian confession would be impoverished if its members only sang hymns by fellow members. Hymn singing is one of the facets of church life in which ecumenism happens almost effortlessly. Our local ministerial group works hard to promote its ecumenical services on Good Friday and Thanksgiving, but I don’t have to twist anyone’s arm for another round of “Amazing Grace.”

On the other hand, it seems we’re missing something. Is it truly ecumenical if we’re not singing Paul Gerhardt alongside Isaac Watts? I’ve observed this scarcity of Lutheran hymns not only in congregations, but in Bible camps, conferences, synod assemblies, and other places where Lutherans gather. It hardly needs to be mentioned that the scarcity is an outright famine in so-called “contemporary” worship services. Why the scarcity? It surely isn’t for lack of material. Is it something about the history of American Lutheranism in which the transmission of European hymns was hindered by the presence of readily available English hymns written by Anglicans and Methodists? Or is there something about Lutheran hymnody that doesn’t fit our current ecclesiastical and spiritual agendas?

In 2017 we will be celebrating the five-­hundredth anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. It seems as good a time as any to ask what it means to be Lutheran, and if we are the “singing church” then it would be good to know if our Lutheran confession makes a ­difference in the hymns we write and in the hymns we sing.

Is there something distinctly Lutheran about hymns by Lutheran hymnwriters? Here’s a way of finding out: I offer a proposal to churches as they prepare for 2017. First, they could look through their worship bulletins from the past year, noting the hymns they sang, and review how many of them were written by Lutheran authors. Hymnals such as Lutheran Book of Worship and Evangelical Lutheran Worship have hymnal companions which give backgrounds on their hymns and authors. (Lutheran Service Book editors are still completing their own companion volume.) Hymnary.org has histories of most every hymn in a hymnal. Again, hymnody is a remarkably ecumenical phenomenon, and Lutheran congregations should not be concerned that they are singing hymns by Methodists. But it might be telling… are they also singing hymns by Lutherans? How often? If a person in the congregation or a committee has the time, it might be worth asking which Lutheran hymns they are singing. What time periods are represented? What ethnicities? German? Norwegian? Slovak? Tanzanian? Are there periods and ethnicities they might try learning more about and singing more often?

Next, I would propose that congregations spend 2016, in the year leading up to the big anniversary, singing a Lutheran hymn each week. Granted, the question of pedigree is complicated, but the process of asking what qualifies would be educational. I would imagine congregations will indeed find something distinct and valuable about Lutheran hymnwriters. Most importantly, they will find an emphasis on the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. Is this lacking in other hymn traditions? No, but other traditions show a willingness to obscure it. “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” and “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” are well known to Lutheran churches, but they were written by ministers of the Anglican and Scottish Free Churches. They speak of God’s majesty, but not of his condescension in Christ. Paul Gerhardt, the Sweet Singer of Lutheranism, however, gives us “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” which is forthright about the suffering of our Lord.

Lutheran hymns are specific about who our redeemer is and what he has done for us. By contrast, beloved hymns from outside the Lutheran stream are vague. “Amazing Grace” speaks of God’s salvation, but never mentions the name of Jesus Christ. “Be Thou My Vision” suffers in the same way. “I Love to Tell the Story,” like a tease, never actually tells the story. We hear of Jesus’ love, but not the specific way in which Jesus showed his love on the cross. Lutheran hymns developed in an organic relationship with the liturgy, the lectionary, and the catechism. They are not generic praise songs, but magnify specific themes of scripture and doctrine, from Luther’s “To Jordan Came the Christ Our Lord” to Jaroslav Vajda’s “Up through Endless Ranks of Angels.” Likewise, they are straightforward in confessing sin—“my life became a living hell,” we sing in “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice”—but also bold in deriding sin on account of Christ. Sing “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness” to learn how a Christian speaks—and even laughs—confidently against sin, death, and the devil. Sing “God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It” or “Lord Jesus Christ, You Have Prepared” to know the joy of God’s saving work in the ­sacraments.

If a congregation accepts the invitation of singing a Lutheran hymn each week, I would suggest they aim to sing a diversity of Lutheran hymns, taking into account various time periods and ethnicities. They will certainly want to become familiar with newer hymnwriters such as Martin Franzmann, Stephen Starke, and Susan Palo Cherwien. Again, the hymnal companions are helpful in providing geographical and chronological indexes. Such diversity will be challenging. We are still waiting for more English translations from the Slovak tradition, although Vajda has given us a good start. Similarly, translations from Scandinavian writers are still catching up with their German counterparts, but Gracia Grindal’s recent volume Hymns and Spiritual Songs from the North (Triune, 2012) takes a large step in that direction.

The early German chorales present obstacles for some congregations, but their obstacles are simultaneously their strength: to wit, their syncopated rhythm, their length, and their doctrinal content. Carl Schalk observed that the immigrants who formed the Missouri Synod brought with them hymnbooks from Germany that had benefited from the revival of rhythmic chorale singing in their homeland, led especially by Friedrich Layriz. Subsequently, Missouri Synod Lutherans have done well at singing chorales with their original syncopated rhythms. It is an old debate, whether Lutheran chorales are best sung in their original, rugged form or in their isometric form, in which the syncopated rhythms have been evened into quarter notes. (A quick glance at “A Mighty Fortress” will highlight the difference, as LBW, ELW, and LSB all contain both versions.) Congregations would benefit from learning to sing these melodies in their original form. The rhythmic chorales are certainly more interesting, but more importantly they embody the lively theology of justification by faith alone and the proclamation that Christ has triumphed over sin, death, and the devil. Perhaps rhythmic melodies are less devotional, and for that reason the isometric forms have been more amenable to Pietists, but if so, rhythmic forms are more in keeping with a theology centered on the living voice of the Gospel, that is, less prayer-like, more preaching-like. Learning these rhythmic melodies takes effort in congregations where they are unfamiliar, but they are worth the time.

The length and doctrinal content of Lutheran chorales can also be off-putting for congregations. On Christmas Eve, many worshipers expect to sing a few verses of “Silent Night,” not fifteen verses of “From Heaven Above.” But lengthy hymns are not intended to be sung all in one shot, one verse the same as the next. Luther wrote his Christmas hymn so that the verses would be shared by choirs and congregation, children and adults taking turns. It is a Christmas pageant in music. When singing “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” half should be sung before the sermon, and half after, with children, men, and women alternating verses. These hymns are to be enjoyed, not forced, and there is enough material for creativity and fun. It is an old tradition that the organ even take a verse and interpret the words with improvisation and instrumentation.

Are some Lutheran hymns heavy in content? Perhaps. “Salvation unto Us Has Come” feels more like a confirmation class than a church picnic, but the faith has to be taught, not merely felt, and if we are going to teach it, why not put it to music?

Robin Leaver has written about the catechetical nature of Lutheran chorales, pointing out that they both teach and have to be taught. Chorales aren’t the kind of texts and melodies that you pick up on one hearing, which explains the steady stream of resources aimed at teaching this tradition. The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau issued a recording on vinyl in 1961, Through the Church Year with the Best in Lutheran Hymns, and then reissued it on CD forty years later. A decade ago, Thrivent sent out a five-disc set titled Celebrating the Musical Heritage of the Lutheran Church to churches across the country. More recently, the Good Shepherd Institute in Ft. Wayne created a DVD study of Lutheran music called Singing the Faith.

A cynic might regard all these media productions as useless repristinating. If it requires this much education, maybe we are trying to rescue a tradition that is doomed to stay in the past, but the tradition has always needed this kind of education. The ALPB wasn’t the first to recognize this; Martin Luther himself did. Luther didn’t just stuff a bunch of hymns into a hymnal and then wait for everyone to start singing them. He recognized the need for teaching. His first collaboration with Johann Walter was a hymnal intended for choirs, so that people could spend time learning the music and then augment hymn-singing in worship. Luther stressed the need for musical education among children and expected them to learn hymns at school. In my own experience, it continues to be the case that children are the most excited about learning chorales, despite the chorales’ reputation for being difficult. Chorales, especially in their rhythmic form, are lively and full of vivid texts about Jesus Christ. This tradition isn’t doomed to stay in the past. It only stays there when pastors, musicians, and congregations insist on burying it. Give it to a child, however, and just see how buoyant it is.

Singing a Lutheran hymn a week would not be to the exclusion of hymns from other confessions. Using only Lutheran hymns would not be a very Lutheran move. Luther was discerning, but also diverse, as he drew from various traditions. But if we sing at least one a week, at some point in the service—whether it is the Hymn of the Day, or the Invocation, or during distribution of the Lord’s Supper—perhaps we will come to appreciate what this tradition offers. If we spend time learning these songs, teaching them in Sunday school, VBS, and confirmation, learning various arrangements in our choirs, and ultimately singing them in worship services, perhaps we will be ready, not only for 2017, not only for the next March Madness Hymn Bracket, but ready to proclaim the vital and lively doctrine of justification by faith alone, take it to our hearts, and sing it for our children.


Paul Koch is pastor of Wannaska Lutheran Parish in rural northwestern Minnesota.

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