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Lutheran Hymnals and their impact

Mark Granquist

Isn’t it rather strange that we American Lutherans tend to refer to our hymnals by the color of their covers? Just gather with any group of Lutherans, and pretty soon they will start talking about, and critiquing, the hymnals that they have used in their life. “Why, I remember the old [insert your favorite color] hymnal – now, that was a good one. Much better than this new [insert your least favorite color] hymnal that we have now!”

Lutherans can get rather passionate about their hymnals, probably because hymns and singing are such a big part of our worship and devotional lives, and changing these things can really stir up controversy. Just think about the emotions raised when our favorite hymns — the ones we know by heart — were changed or deleted from the newest version of the hymnal.

Hymns and hymnals have always been very important in the Lutheran tradition. Luther wrote or re-wrote quite a number of hymns, and the first Lutheran hymnals appeared already in the first decades of the Reformation. The century after Luther was a “golden age” of hymnody, when the great Lutheran chorale hymns were written, and later re-set, by composers like J.S. Bach.

The immigrant Lutherans who came to North America starting in the 18th century customarily brought with them a Bible, the Small Catechism, and the Psalmbook or hymnal of the region of Europe from which they came. In this new country, with few Lutheran congregations or pastors, the immigrants could still gather with their hymnals to worship God and give thanks. They used these European hymnals for many years; they became a link to the world that they had left behind, as well as a beloved religious resource.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, American Lutheran hymnody began to change in two important ways. First, a dramatic surge of new hymns and types of hymns came out of the Anglo-American world; revival hymns, gospel hymns, revivals of ancient and medieval hymns, and many others, all came to enrich the Protestant hymn traditions. These kinds of hymns, often more subjective and personal, were adopted and copied by Lutheran hymn writers, often out of the Pietist tradition.

The second major development was the translation of the Lutheran hymn tradition into English; the Lutheran immigrants began to worship in English, and this stimulated the production of dozens of new American Lutheran hymnals. Of course, this shift brought controversy: Which of the traditional Lutheran hymns should be translated and retained in these new hymnals, and how many of the new Anglo-American hymns should be included? Hymnal controversies are nothing new!

A myriad of hymnals

With the multiplication of Lutheran denominations in the 19th century came ever more, and even more varied, American Lutheran hymnals. Each new church body, it seems, had to have its own hymnal. These worship books are important for group identity and the sense of purpose of each of these denominations for them to have their own hymnal – to have something in common from which they could worship and sing.

Hymnals became an important vehicle by which American Lutherans came together and merged various different bodies of Lutherans.

The same phenomenon worked in reverse, too. Hymnals became an important vehicle by which American Lutherans came together and merged various different bodies of Lutherans. The path to a merger was often preceded by the development of a common hymnal: First, get the congregations of the distinct denominations to worship and sing out of a common hymnal, it was reasoned, and the road to merger would be easier.

In the later decades of the 19th century, the three divided colonial-era Lutheran groups adopted a common hymnal, the Common Service Book and Hymnal, which preceded their merger in 1918. Midwestern immigrant German groups came together in 1930, assisted by the American Lutheran hymnal. In the 1950s, eight different American Lutheran groups came together to develop a common hymnal, the red Service Book and Hymnal.

Although the merger process ended up with two different denominations instead of one (the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America), the result was that the majority of American Lutherans were now using a common hymnal. In the 1970s, the development of the green Lutheran Book of Worship was envisioned as a common hymnal for all American Lutherans. (This, too, was perhaps too ambitious.)

The late 20th century saw a further expansion of Lutheran hymnody, with new hymns from Latin America, Africa, and Asia being included in the newest Lutheran hymnals, including the Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELCA), Lutheran Service Book (LCMS), and Christian Worship (WELS).

New hymnals broaden the ways in which Lutherans worship and tie them together with Christians from around the world. The impact that hymnals have had on the culture of American Lutheranism is amazing.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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