Hymns of 1524

“It is good and God pleasing to sing hymns…so that God’s Word and Christian teaching might be instilled and implanted in many ways”

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the printing of the first Lutheran hymnal. In 1524, Etlich Cristlich Lider also known as the Actliederbuch or “eight-song book” was published by Martin Luther and Paul Speratus. The title page states the little collection is comprised of canticles and psalms according to the pure Word of God from the Holy Scripture, made by to be sung in church as already practiced in Wittenberg. Hymns published in this first printing include “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice,” “Salvation Unto Us Has Come,” “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold,” and “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee.” Though containing only eight hymns, the pamphlet spread with such success that a larger collection was published only a few months later, expanded to include three times as many hymns in the Erfurt Enchiridion. Within that same year, Johann Walter, Luther’s close musical collaborator, had already created the first choir edition of these hymns, Eyn geystlich Gesangk Buchleyn, containing thirty-two settings, twenty-four of which were hymns of Luther.

The explosion of new Lutheran hymns helped the theology of the Reformation spread like wildfire. New hymns were often distributed on a single broadsheet, and peddlers in the street would sing these new hymns to advertise and attract customers. On May 6, 1524, in Magdeburg, one such peddler was singing Luther’s hymns in the marketplace and selling broadsheets featuring “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” and “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee” when the mayor ordered his imprisonment. Influential citizens of the town quickly saw that he was released to keep singing Luther’s hymns. Publishers in Magdeburg, Zwickau, Leipzig, Erfurt, Nürnberg, Augsburg, Königsberg and elsewhere quickly multiplied the number of hymnals in print. Luther wrote in a 1524 hymnal preface that “It is good and God pleasing to sing hymns…so that God’s Word and Christian teaching might be instilled and implanted in many ways,” adding that for the youth especially, these hymns would give “something to wean them away from love ballades and carnal songs and to teach them something of value in their place.”

One of these first Lutheran hymns, “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” was just sung by Kammerchor students at Trinity. Besides being the cause of an arrest at the time of its publication, this hymn is an excellent example of Luther’s hymnody. It is a setting of Psalm 67, and many of Luther’s hymns fittingly take their form from the psalms, including “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” During the Thirty Years’ War, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden ordered that “May God Bestow on Us His Grace” be played before the battle at Lützen on trumpets and kettledrums, where a great Protestant victory was gained. This hymn, along with many others that Luther wrote, has stood the test of time and still gives Christians even 500 years later a way that “the holy gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew may be noised and spread abroad.”

May God bestow on us His grace,
With blessings rich provide us;
And may the brightness of His face
To life eternal guide us,
That we His saving health may know,
His gracious will and pleasure,
And also to the nations show
Christ’s riches without measure
And unto God convert them.

In Christ,
Miss Engwall

Reference: Luther’s Works, vol. 53, p. 316.

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