The Purpose of Hymns during the Reformation: Part 3

By Monica Berndt

The Purpose of Hymns for the Reformation: Part 3

Luther believed that “music was an ideal means to come to know and proclaim the mystery of God.”1 By placing hymns that the congregation could sing within the set structure of the Mass, he changed its purpose so that it educated the common people instead of making them mere spectators.2 Luther began by drawing on the Psalms for inspiration when composing hymns, because he believed that the Psalmists also understood the connection between God’s Word, music, and their ability to affect and teach humans.1 They helped draw people to the promises of God and were the earliest hymns of the church. Since singing Psalms was acceptable during the Mass, songs about God’s Word and the teachings of Christianity were equally as acceptable in Luther’s eyes. He progressed from writing hymns based solely on Biblical texts to hymns like Vater Unser im Himmelreich which taught doctrine as well. He believed that everyone could and should have access to music during the services because music was created by God for all people to enjoy.3 This justified the use of hymns in the church service, and more importantly, justified the ability of people outside the clergy to participate in the service as more than just observers. By allowing the congregation to participate in worship, Luther’s music became propaganda for spreading the Gospel across Europe.

The use of the vernacular was key to propagating doctrine. Luther emphasized that worship should be understood by the people participating in it, which meant that when he and other composers of his time composed hymns for their German speaking churches, they composed them in German.4 Luther’s German hymns brought people to him because they wanted to learn about the things they had been told to believe. Vater Unser im Himmelreich taught people the meaning of prayer, something they had been told to do without really understanding why it was important. Many of Luther’s other hymns outlined other parts of the Small Catechism, and others, such as Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott, simply taught people about the attributes of God. Luther did not believe that Biblical teachings were too complicated for ordinary people to understand. In fact, it was because common people did not understand the Bible that the church had been able to teach doctrines that Luther argued were Biblically false. The end of the second stanza of Vater Unser im Himmelreich translates to “let no false doctrines us pervert; all poor, deluded souls convert.”3 The main focus of these hymns was to teach people, and Luther’s concern that people receive proper teaching fueled his desire to spread this doctrine though the medium he felt best served both God and the people.


1 Loewe, J. Andreas. “Why Do Lutherans Sing? Lutherans, Music, and the Gospel in the First Century of the Reformation.” Church History, vol 82, no. 1. (2013): 69–89. Accessed April 16, 2017.

2 Herl, Joseph. Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism: Choir, Congregation, and Three Centuries of Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

3 Leaver, Robin A.. Luther's Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

4 Schalk, Carl. Music in Early Lutheranism. Saint Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 2001.

Monica Berndt is the music director at Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle, WA and studies music and history at the University of Washington. This is the first part of a paper written for her Medieval Music History course last spring. She can be reached at

Created: October 1st, 2017