Each year at this time, protestant Christians everywhere bring to mind a series of fateful events. One person played so major a role, so prominent a part in those events, that he will never be forgotten. That series of events is now known as the Reformation. That individual was Martin Luther.
Luther himself was typical of the movement which he led. The leader was like his followers: firm, sincere, and valiant. Because Luther was so typical of the Reformation, he has often been its representative. Thus I too shall use Luther as a lens to focus our attention on a greater subject.
Let us consider Luther, the musician. From his childhood, Luther was both a performer and a lover of music. He had the gift of a good voice which he did not waste. The young lad’s sweet clear voice caroled often in the streets and cathedrals of Eiselben and Erfurt. Luther also became a competent player of the flute and the lute. Luther said that music was a “gift and a grace of God; it could drive out the devil and make men forget all wrath”. These skills were relatively unimportant to Luther in his youth, but they became vital weapons in his great struggle.
Some of Luther’s greatest struggles were over before he first used music as a weapon. Luther wrote the first of his many songs in 1523. The ninety-five theses, the debate with Dr. Eck, the bull of excommunication, the trial at Worms: these familiar events of Luther’s life were already history. The struggle for the birth of protestantism was over; but the contest for the survival of protestantism had just begun.
In the years preceding 1523, there were practically no hymns. Except for a very few unknown and unused hymns, the only church music was the Latin liturgical chants. These songs were performed by either the priest or a specially selected choir. Thus the common folk never participated in church singing, either as listeners or performers; for they could not understand it and they were not permitted to sing it. Into these surroundings, Luther’s hymns were born.
Luther’s hymns were immediately popular. His first song was written in 1523. A year later the first protestant hymnal was published. It contained eight hymns, four by Luther. The little book “flew all over Europe” in answer to a deep felt want. The new hymns with the magnificent music were eagerly learned by the people. Musicians played them from church steeples, and crowds sang them in the market places. Twenty years after the first hymnal was issued, at least one hundred seventeen collections of hymns by Luther and his associates had been printed. Because of his many compositions (said to be 37; 12 of them translations) and the efforts he had expended in promoting congregational singing, Luther won the name of the “Nightingale of Wittenberg”.
In substance, Luther’s work for the people’s song was a detail of his liturgic reform. The congregational song both “symbolized and realized the principle of direct access of the believer to the Father, and thus exemplified, in itself alone, the whole spirit of the worship of the new church”. However, Luther’s musical endeavors have proved to be far more than a detail. His songs were one of his most potent and lasting weapons. Coleridge said of him: “He did as much for the Reformation by his hymns as by his translation of the Bible.”
Luther’s greatest hymn, what we might call his masterpiece, deserves more than a passing notice. The English translation of that hymn is “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”. In 1529, Luther was a fugitive from the law of the land. Charles V, the emperor, had banned him from the Holy Roman Empire. Because of this, Luther was concealed in the fortress of Coburg by the Elector of Saxony. The manner in which he was being hounded, maligned, and persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church only stirred his independent soul to greater courage. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” resulted.
The lyrics of the hymn were inspired by the forty sixth Psalm. The origin of the melody was a Gregorian chant. From this fusion of melody and verse emerged the rallying cry of the Reformation. The hymn was a tonic for the discouraged and distressed. Conflict with “the prince of darkness grim”; difficulties like a “flood of mortal ills”; “this world with devils filled” threatening “to undo us”—all these are reminders of Luther’s heroic words on entering Worm in 1521: “Though there be as many devils in Worms as tiles on the housetops, I must go;” and of the equally heroic declaration there before the great council: “I am bound by the Scripture; my conscience is submissive to the will of God. I can recant nothing and will recant nothing.” Triumphantly rings out his confidence in “the man of God’s own choosing”, “from age to age the same”, who surely “must win the battle”.
That giant faith and hope of Luther’s should be ours today. Our God is with His people in the same measure today as he was in Luther’s day. Like Luther, we must have the conviction that Christ’s followers are invincible and His cause is inevitable. We are youth, and youth’s task is to maintain our heritage, and then to progress to new heights of achievement. To do this successfully, we shall trust in God who is a “mighty fortress, a bulwark never failing.”