“Luther has damned more souls with his hymns than with all his sermons,” complained a sixteenth-century Jesuit priest. In fact, it is said that Martin Luther’s hymns were more significant than the printed word in spreading the Reformation. Few people have read his pulpit sermons, but his sermons through hymns continue to be preached every Sunday throughout the world as they have for four-and-a-half centuries.

Luther’s influence touched the world’s greatest musicians. For example, Johann Sebastian Bach had Luther’s works in his personal library, and he used several of Luther’s texts and tunes as the basis of some of his finest music. Bach authority Albert Schweitzer considered Luther’s great musicianship prerequisite to the impact Bach had on church music. Luther’s hymn, “Christ Lay in the Bands of Death” was the text for Bach’s cantata no. 4—probably the greatest cantata ever written.

Restoring Congregational Singing

Whenever we sing as a congregation in church, we participate in one of Luther’s greatest contributions: he restored the gift of song to the people in their own language as part of their worship. He said, “I intend to make German Psalms for the people, [that is], spiritual songs so that the Word of God even by means of song may live among the people.” Albert Bailey has written that Luther “gave the German people in their own language the Bible and the hymnbook so that God might speak directly to them in His Word, and that they might directly answer Him in their songs” (The Gospel in Hymns, 1950). It is for good reason that Luther has been called “the father of congregational song.”

For over a millennium ...

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