Music Monday: Martin Luther, Music, and A Mighty Fortress

Last week I was reading through some of Martin Luther’s hymns. It’s a devotional activity even to read through his hymns! Below is the excellent preface to Luther’s first collection of hymns. I believe it is from the year 1524. After Luther’s preface I’ll put the words to an original version of what we now call “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Enjoy this Monday music meditation!

That it is good, and pleasing to God, for us to sing spiritual songs is, I think, a truth whereof no Christian can be ignorant; since not only the example of the prophets and kings of the Old Testament (who praised God with singing and music, poesy and all kinds of stringed instruments) but also the like practice of all Christendom from the beginning, especially in respect to psalms, is well known to every one: yea, St. Paul doth also appoint the same (1 Cor 14) and command the Colossians, in the third chapter, to sing spiritual songs and psalms from the heart unto the Lord, that thereby the word of God and Christian doctrine be in every way furthered and practised.

Accordingly, to make a good beginning and to encourage others who can do it better, I have myself, with some others, put together a few hymns, in order to bring into full play the blessed Gospel, which by God’s grace hath again risen: that we may boast, as Moses doth in his song (Exodus 15) that Christ is become our praise and our song, and that, whether we sing or speak, we may not know anything save Christ our Saviour, as St. Paul saith (1 Cor. 2).

These songs have been set in four parts, for no other reason than because I wished to provide our young people (who both will and ought to be instructed in music and other sciences) with something whereby they might rid themselves of amorous and carnal songs, and in their stead learn something wholesome, and so apply themselves to what is good with pleasure, as becometh the young.

Beside this, I am not of opinion that all sciences should be beaten down and made to cease by the Gospel, as some fanatics pretend; but I would fain see all the arts, and music in particular, used in the service of Him who hath given and created them.

Therefore I entreat every pious Christian to give a favorable reception to these hymns, and to help forward my undertaking, according as God hath given him more or less ability. The world is, alas, not so mindful and diligent to train and teach our poor youth, but that we ought to be forward in promoting the same. God grant us his grace. Amen.

Here’s an older translation of “A Mighty Fortress”:

Strong tower and refuge is our God
Right goodly shield and weapon;
He helps us free in every need
That hath us now o’ertaken.
The old evil foe,
Means us deadly woe;
Deep guile and great might
Are his dread arms in fight
On earth is not his equal.

With our own might
We nothing can,
Soon are we lost and fallen;
But for us fights the righteous man,
Whom God himself hath called.
Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Our sole King and Lord,
As God of Hosts adored;
He holds the field forever.

Though earth all full of devils were,
Wide roaring to devour us;
Yet fear we no such grievous fear,
They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He’s judged; The deed is done!
One little word can fell him.

His Word they still shall let abide
And little thank have for it;
Through all the fight
He’s on our side
With his good gifts and Spirit.
Take they then our life,
Wealth, fame, child, and wife,
Let these all be gone,
No triumph have they won.
The kingdom ours remaineth.

The above quote and hymn are found in “Luther, Martin, The Hymns of Martin Luther: Set to Their Original Melodies with an English Version, ed. by Leonard Woolsey Bacon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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