The Power of Hymns
Hymns are the workhorses of the liturgy. Hymnwriters use poetry to teach us, to reinforce our current understandings, and to show us new ways of looking at God and the world. Through them we confess, we praise, we mourn, we rejoice. They also help to define who we are amid the unity of Christ’s body; hymns are a tool that help to convey a denomination’s doctrine. This has always been the case: Methodists are proud to claim Charles Wesley’s hymns as their own; Anglicans and Episcopalians claim John Mason Neale and the Sternhold and Hopkins Psalter; and Congregationalists claim Isaac Watts, etc. This is especially true in the Lutheran Church: Martin Luther himself was a hymnwriter and composer of hymn tunes. Following his lead, many others composed hymns that professed the Lutheran understandings of Grace and scripture.
On Friday, October 26, we commemorate Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608), Johann Heermann (1585–1647), and Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676). These three outstanding hymnwriters all worked in Germany during times of war and plague. When Philipp Nicolai was a pastor in Westphalia, the plague killed thirteen hundred of his parishioners. One hundred seventy people died in one week. His hymns, “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright,” were included in a series of meditations he wrote to comfort his parishioners during the plague.
The style of Johann Heermann’s hymns moved away from the more objective style of Reformation hymnody toward expressing the emotions of faith. Among his hymns is the plaintive and confessional text, “Ah, Holy Jesus”.
Paul Gerhardt lost a preaching position at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin because he refused to sign a document stating he would not make theological arguments in his sermons. The author of beloved hymns such as “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”, some have called Gerhardt the greatest of Lutheran hymnwriters.
Each week, the hymns that we sing in church, as well as the choir’s anthem and the organ voluntaries, all reflect the Gospel reading for the day and provide new or alternative ways of understanding, seeing, and experiencing Christ. Through them, we are made better Christians and are connected with all the saints who forever sing of God’s grace and majesty. Therefore, it is incredibly important to remember John Wesley’s instructions for singing: Sing lustily and with a good courage, but above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Wesley’s complete instructions can be found here.