Battle Hymn of the Reformation

Here is a multi-media Reformation celebration, with “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” accompanied by the art of the Reformation, with lots of Lucas Cranach.

HT: Scott Sullivan via Wittenberg Trail

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

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  • Susan aka organshoes

    Good start to the day.
    And amen.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Note how that arrangement appeased both factions of the hymn itself: the rhythmic-preferring faction and the isorhythmic-preferring faction. (Now, there’s your grounds for a religious war…within a single congregation)

  • CRB

    Wonderful music and art!
    BTW, the title, “Battle Hymn…” reminds me of some members who are enamored with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and would like it used in the Divine Service. Does anyone know of a critique of that hymn that might put the kibosh on its use by Christians? Thanks!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Funny, Susan. By the way do you really have organshoes? And do you prefer a version? I do. Unfortunately its the version my congregation is most unfamiliar with, so I usually let them sing the one they like. Oh well.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Dear Bryan: Actually, we rotate the versions. Not very precise rotations, but we try to ‘be fair.’
    I have no preference really. One is Luther, one is Bach. We can probably thank Bach for rescuing the tune from likely obscurity, and for dressing it in Bachian loveliness. It’s not as if it really changed anything–not like doing the liturgy in Klingon or anything like that. (One of the rare times, maybe, that ‘modernization’ or contemporization really did rescue and *retain* the relevance of ancient truth!)
    Yeah, I have organshoes. And they ain’t made for walkin’–except to the communion rail and back to the bench.
    8>)

  • Anon

    The Battle Hymn of the Republic is political and used to be the American national anthem, between Chester and Star-Spangled Banner, historically. I like it a lot, but I wouldn’t use it in the Divine Service. I’d use on the 4th of July in public, though.

    My congregation (blue hymnal) sings a version where the words themselves are different. I have the other version half-memorized. It can be confusing.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Organ shoes are rad! Thanks, Susan.

  • Booklover

    I’d always thought the more interesting “syncopated” rhythmic version was the original one written by Luther. It’s too bad this isn’t the version sung in most churches today–it is far more interesting.

    Is it correct, Susan, that Luther’s original was this rhythmic one that shows up half-way through the video?

  • Susan aka organshoes

    Yes, Booklover. The iso-rhythmic is Bach’s.
    Can’t help but wonder what all happened to the tune between, possibly, the 16th and 18th centuries.
    Dr. Arthur Just discussed this very hymn on Issues, Etc. on Friday, Reformation Day.
    http://www.issuesetc.org/podcast/Show90103108H3.mp3
    Among other things, Dr. Just says scholars have dated the hymn’s composition at perhaps 1527 or 1528.

  • kerner

    Organshoes:

    Whoa whoa whoa. Forgive a musically ignorant man, but are you saying that the less singable version of the tune as found in the old TLH is Bach, whereas the melody as usually sung in reform/protestant hymnals is the one Luther wrote? (Not that I’m doubting you, but I never really heard the more traditionally Lutheran version till I became a Lutheran.) It would seem a little ironic if the version we sang in the Congregational church was the tune Luther used.

    My bigger pet peeve is the translation of the lyrics. I could be mistaken, but I think the old TLH lyrics tried to translate as literally as possible, while the lyrics of the other version tried more to capture the essence of the German without translating word for word (or even phrase for phrase, sometimes)

    Even our new traditional version has a change from the old TLH version. In the last verse, the TLH version says:

    “…And take they our life,
    goods, fame, child and wife.
    Let these all be gone.
    They yet have nothing won.
    The kingdom ours remaineth.”

    Lutheran Worship and now the Lutheran Service Book have changed the phrase “They yet have nothing won” to “Our victory has been won”. But I’m not sure why. I asked a friend of mine who speaks German to translate that line, and she said the words mean, “they have gained nothing”, so the old TLH translation is much more accurate than the new one. Did the statement “they yet have nothing won”, in reference to the loss of life or family members, sound too harsh for today’s Lutherans? I hope not, because the words were written when losing your family for your faith was a real possibility, and I am sure that Luther didn’t write them lightly.

  • Susan aka organshoes

    You have me backwards, I think, kerner, though such phrases as ‘less singable’ and ‘the melody as usually sung’ leave me a little in the dark.
    The Bach version is the fully harmonized one, with a more defined meter (657 in LSB–also known as isorhythmic). I only knew that one until I came into the Lutheran church in the late 1980s.
    The more rhythmic (but un-metered) one is Luther’s (656, LSB). The melody, not the harmony, and the rhythm are dominant. But Luther accompanied himself on a lute, not on a pipe organ with multiple keyboards and voices.
    The Luther version would be more popular, I posit, if organists were to play it (present it to their congregations for singing, that is) as if they were playing something other than a mighty organ; if they kept it lighter, the rhythms crisper, and forgot about harmonizing every note of the melody. If, in other words, they let the word rule the day, and not the harmony (which isn’t there, after all). The two versions are practically two different hymns–of two natures, though not of two spirits.
    As for TLH and what other Protestants ‘normally’ use, I hardly know. When I became a Lutheran, TLH was a relic. I’ve barely cracked one open, except to find a hymn, a text, or a harmonization that Lutherans have regrettably abandoned. Modern hymnals are certainly easier to read than TLH, and easier to follow, but my how we have to coddled into singing hymns anymore.
    Your observation on the different words is interesting. On Issues, Etc. last week, the winning Soundbite of the Week was Rev. Don Matzat’s, froma Reformation sermon, where he said that, were the Reformation to be held today, no one would come. Who would feel any outrage over indulgences being sold for the remission of sins, because who is so troubled by his sin (as opposed to the sins of those around him) and fearful of God’s judgment, that he’d even think indulgence-buying and selling might be a fine idea.
    We’re more concerned with who goes to the Super Bowl, he said, than our own going to Heaven.

  • Alan

    In keeping with the reformation doctrine of vocation the following Reformation hymn poem of Luther’s conversion was written by a man who has made his living as a janitor. It is hoped all will enjoy reading it.

    My sins no dark comparing its weight my soul loathed bear, and in the dark despairing of help that could be there. This life so filled with sorrow with grief from troubles be, and no hope for tomorrow all effort vanity. There must be more to being than pleasures, pain and strife and all the evil seeing in such a fleeting life! Inside me anger festered. How could such justice be?! My life so sorely pestered from so much misery. So for my death awaited, eternal death my dread; God and His justice hated for all my works were dead! But, hard I read the Scripture in Romans chapter one. In it I found the answer on justice that was done. The Gospel is God’s power to save those who believe and in my darkest hour God’s justice there perceived. No work of reparation can man pay for his sin; it’s Christ’s propitiation by grace through faith in Him. My sins no dark comparing its weight for joy he bear. And from the cross declaring, “it’s done” my sins not there! This life still has its sorrows with grief from troubles be, but in the man of sorrows He bore them all for me. There is much more to being than pleasures, pain and strife, and all the evil seeing pale to eternal life! Inside me love is forming. How could such justice be?! My life was so deforming, but Justice rescued me. So now my death awaited. Eternal life begins. And to the God once hated I go to be with Him. The just live by faith only in Christ their pardon won. Way chosen of God solely His justice this Way done!

    “A mighty Fortress is our God, A Bulwark never failing, our Savior He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” Sin, death, devil — foes, sustained fatal blow; on Golgotha’s cross, for them the battle lost. God’s justice everlasting.

    The justice of God is not only that justification is by faith and not by keeping the Law, but by faith in the just Christ who kept the Law and yet was not justified, but rather by law condemned without cause and executed in sinful man’s place. To the effect that sinful man is not by Law condemned for cause and executed, but rather by grace through faith in Christ is declared justified in His place. Thus, the justice of God is that each, both the Son of God and man, received what the other deserved. That is the justice of God and the just are alive by faith because of it!


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