Joycelyn Chng

Significance of the Reformation to Congregational Music

The Protestant Reformation is an important event in the historical development of congregational music. Its significance can be seen in three areas: (1) renewal of congregational songs, (2) use of congregational songs in spreading doctrine, and (3) emergence of two main streams in congregational songs.

Renewal of Congregational Songs

With the Protestant Reformation came a renewal of congregational songs in many parts of Western Europe. Martin Luther (1483-1546) has often been identified as the one who had brought about this renewal, and rightly so. Notwithstanding this, the initial efforts in restoring congregational singing actually had its beginnings about a century earlier, in the ministry of John Hus (1369-1415) of Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).

John Hus was a professor at the University of Prague and opposed the doctrines of the Roman Church. He was strongly influenced by John Wycliffe, the Oxford professor and publisher of the first English Bible. Hus not only preached that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority for man regarding faith and practice, but also taught the right of the common people to share in the songs of the church. In this way, he and his followers became instrumental in restoring congregational singing back into the church. They wrote many hymns for use in worship. Hus also used hymns as sermons, and in his hands, music became a tool for evangelism. His witness inspired the Moravian Movement. The Moravians, also known as the Bohemian Brethren, became widely known for their evangelistic fervor and missionary spirit, as well as for their exuberant congregational singing.

Declared a heretic by the Roman Church at the Council of Constance, Hus was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. As much as Hus is recognized today as a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation, he can also be said to be the forerunner of Luther in the restoration of congregational singing.

A little over a century later on October 31, 1517, Luther, an Augustinian monk from Eisleben, Germany and an ordained priest of the Roman Church, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. This one act would come to be marked as the start of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. Luther’s Ninety -Five Theses disputed against the Church ’s sale and teachings of indulgences. In addition to being a theologian, Luther was also a musician who “believed music to be of utmost importance in worship.” One of the biblical truths emphasized by Luther was the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9), and it prompted him to translate the Bible into German. This same conviction undoubtedly “also produced the desire for congregational involvement in the liturgy through singing.” Some have noted that Luther had probably also been influenced by the Bohemian Brethren ’s use of congregational singing.

Luther thus introduced reforms to the musical aspect of the church service, particularly in the area of congregational singing:

German hymns (called chorales) were used in parts of the service, and in addition Luther translated into German parts of the litany, which the choir had traditionally sung in Latin, and set them to chorale tunes for the congregation to sing. (Hooper)

Widely considered as the “first significant evangelical hymn writer”, Luther not only wrote and adapted hymn texts but also composed hymn tunes.He also supervised the publication of several hymnal collections. His most famous hymn is his paraphrase of Psalm 46, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”).

Use of Congregational Song in Spreading Doctrine

Congregational singing was not just renewed through the Reformation, it was also greatly utilized in the spread and teaching of doctrine. Church historian Philip Schaff had this to say concerning the impact in this regard of Luther’s introduction of the hymn:

The hymn became, next to the German Bible and the German sermon, the most powerful missionary of the evangelical doctrines of sin and redemption, and accompanied the Reformation in its triumphal march. Printed as tracts, the hymns were scattered wide and far, and sung in the house, the school, the church and on the street.

The Lutheran movement eventually spread to the Scandinavian region in northern Europe, and became the state church in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

With a revival in congregational singing, an estimated 20,000 chorales were composed in Germany by the end of the 16th century. Emphases on doctrine as well as the themes of comfort, death, eternal life and Christ’s second coming characterized the hymns written in the latter half of the 16th century. This was a response to the Counter-Reformation that arose and a reflection of the challenges it had posed.

Emergence of Two Main Streams in Congregational Songs

Besides the chorale tradition that took root in Germany and Scandinavia during the 16th century Protestant Reformation, psalm-singing also developed as “an important part of worship in most of the Protestant Reformed churches of the sixteenth century.” (Reynolds and Price)

While the psalms were sung in prose form in the early Christian church, those sung in the Reformed churches were metrical in nature i.e. psalm texts arranged into strophic form (stanzas) with rhyme and poetic meter. In the days of the Reformation, psalm-singing became used—in addition to Bible translations and sermons preached in the language of the people—as a method to give the people the Word of God.

Luther was one such reformer who “had his congregations sing the biblical psalms where practicable” and encouraged both “metrical settings of psalms as well as original hymn texts.” (Hooper) On the other hand, John Calvin (1509-1564), the French-Swiss Reformation theologian who wrote the monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), was known for advocating the metrical psalm for congregational singing.

For his part in establishing the congregational singing of psalms, Calvin has been described as “the guiding hand behind the metrical psalm.” (Eskew and McElrath) Nevertheless, it was Martin Bucer, a German minister and Protestant reformer in Strasbourg, who had advocated the metrical psalm in the vernacular as early as 1524. Calvin was exposed to Bucer’s ideas during his stay in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541, when the dissenting voices of the Libertines, who resented the radical reform put in place by Calvin, forced him out of Geneva, the city where he had been ministering for some time.

Calvin eventually returned to Geneva in September 1541 after the Libertines fell from power, and preached at St. Peter’s Cathedral. It is noted that “through the influence of Bucer, the practice of metrical psalmody assumed an especially important role in the form of worship developed by John Calvin in Geneva.”
(To be continued)