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Martin Luther

Guizot in his History of European Civilization calls the Reformation an insurrection of the human mind against the absolute power of spiritual 10 order. In the changes that then occurred few things are more noteworthy than the new privileges granted to the individual worshipper. There was revived the primitive idea of the priesthood of all believers. Instead of the Latin Mass, the Reformation introduced a sermon in the vernacular, and for the chanting of priests and choirs it substituted congregational singing. Among the means which contributed to the large benefits which then came to the church the writing of hymns was not the least important. It is interesting to note that the leader of the Reformation was also the first evangelical hymnist.2323But cf. L. F. Benson: The English Hymn, N. Y. 1915, p. 20 ff. To Luther belongs the extraordinary merit of having given to his people in their own language not only the Bible and the Catechism, but also the hymn book, so that they might directly answer the word of God in their songs. No sooner had there been felt the want of German psalms and hymns to take the place of the Latin hymns and sequences than Luther set about to supply the want. He was intensely fond of poetry and song and was himself a poet by nature. His estimate of the value of music is revealed in his words: "He who despises music, as all fanatics do, will never be my friend." He wished that all children might be taught to sing; "for," he says, "I would fain see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has bestowed and created them."2424Cf. Tischreden: "Von der Musica" and "Die Musicam sol man nicht verachten."

He began to write hymns soon after he had completed his New Testament translation and from this time on he was an active reformer of church music and hymns, enlisting in the same work the large circle of friends whom he gathered about him. Luther had recourse to the Latin hymns, adapting and translating many of those which would lend themselves best to his purposes. Altogether he wrote thirty-seven hymns, most of them dating from the year 1524; more are frequently ascribed to him though on doubtful authority. Luther's hymns which are characterized by simplicity and strength, had a popular churchly tone; his style is plain and often rugged and quaint but he throws into his poems all his own fervent faith and deep devotion. His most famous hymn "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott," written in 1529 when the German princes made their formal Protest against the revocation of their liberties, thus gaining the name of Protestants, has passed into English hymnody in no less than sixty-three versions.2525Cf. Julian: Dictionary of Hymnology, pp. 324-5.


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