by Randall McElwain

To introduce the music of the Reformation for Music History students, I often contrast two photographs: a Roman Catholic cathedral and a Lutheran church. The focal point of the Catholic church is the altar where the Mass was celebrated; the focal point of the Lutheran church is the pulpit where the Word was preached.

Perceptive students often notice a second focal point in the Lutheran church—the pipe organ at the front of the church. This reminds students of the centrality of music in Reformation churches.

Based on 1 Chronicles 25:1, one author defined a church musician as a person who “preaches with music.” That is how the Reformers saw music. Music is more than “filler” or “preliminary to the sermon.” Music should present the Word of God with power and authority.

There are at least three ways in which the Reformation impacted music. Each of these continues to influence church music today.

Lessons From Luther

Luther taught us the value of hymns for learning Scripture. Read Psalm 46 and then sing Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” Luther understood that a great text set to powerful music makes Scripture memorable. Luther’s setting of Psalm 46 has encouraged multitudes of believers in the face of Satan’s attacks. 
As Wesleyans, we benefit from this Reformation heritage. Many Wesley hymns are paraphrases of Scripture. Thomas Chisholm based “Great is Thy Faithfulness” on Lamentations 3:23. In many of our greatest hymns, we sing God’s Word set to music.

Luther taught us the value of hymns for learning doctrine. One of Luther’s lesser known hymns (“We All Believe in One True God”) is a poetic setting of the Nicene Creed. Luther knew that hymns help us remember and understand the great doctrines of our faith.

Through our hymnals, we enjoy this same heritage. The Wesleyan hymnal was a textbook of holiness doctrine. Wesley helps us celebrate the joy of knowing we are saved as we sing “And Can It Be.”
No condemnation now I dread,
   Jesus, and all in him, is mine.
Alive in him, my living head,
   And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
   And claim the crown, through Christ my own

A later hymn-writer rejoiced in that same assurance: 
Mercy there was great and grace was free;
   Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty,
   At Calvary!

In a great hymn, Wesley prayed for a pure heart restored in the image of our heavenly Father, a heart of perfect love:

A heart in every thought renewed,
   And full of love divine;
Perfect, and right, and pure, and good – 
   A copy, Lord, of thine! 

In the same way, a later Methodist hymn-writer prayed:
O to be like Thee! blessed Redeemer, 
   This is my constant longing and prayer;
Gladly I’ll forfeit all of earth’s treasures, Jesus, 
   Thy perfect likeness to wear.

Luther taught us the value of congregational singing. One of Luther’s great emphases was the “priesthood of the believer.” This doctrine means that we have access to the Father not through a priest, but through the intercession of our Great High Priest who sits at the right hand of the Father.

This doctrine motivated Luther’s emphasis on congregational singing. Instead of choirs singing to the congregation, Luther had choirs sing with the congregation. Luther loved choral music, but he insisted that the primary music of the church was sung by the congregation. 

Wesleyans inherited this great emphasis. Methodist churches were singing churches. Every Methodist home included two books—a Bible and a hymnbook. A highlight of every Methodist service was the congregational singing. 

The Reformation and Church Music Today

We were (and must remain) singing Methodists! As holiness people, we have inherited a rich Reformation heritage. We must not give it up! 

Please do not allow empty ditties to replace the great biblical and doctrinal hymns of our tradition. Does this mean that we should sing only old hymns? No! There are many new songs based on Scripture and sound doctrine. Sing them joyfully. But never settle for musical chaff.

Please do not give up our heritage of congregational singing. It is easy to allow a few musicians to replace the congregation as the primary musicians in the service. I have watched congregations:

  • Sit passively while a choir sang all the music; 
  • Sway and clap while a praise team sang songs that few in the congregation understood; 
  • Mumble half-heartedly during congregational singing and then run the aisles during the “special singing.” 

What had happened? The congregation had forgotten that all who are “marching to Zion” are called to
Join in a song with sweet accord,
   And thus surround the throne.

​In this anniversary of the Reformation, let us hold to our heritage of great biblical hymns. Like Luther, Watts, Wesley, Crosby, and a host of others, let us “praise Him, praise Him ever in joyful song!”