“Jesus Loves Me” is the earliest song I remember from my childhood. Growing up as the daughter of a Baptist pastor, my parents sung these words to me at home, and every Sunday it was the invitation song for children to come forward for the children’s sermon.
Perhaps to my father’s dismay, I remember very few of his sermons, but the hymns—they’re printed forever on my memory. “Amazing Grace,” “Just As I Am,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Be Thou My Vision,” are just a few. At various points in my life, these songs have functioned pedagogically, evangelistically, sermonically and therapeutically. And at times when my faith has felt the weakest, I have sung the old hymns as if I were singing myself back to faith.
Today we take for granted congregational and private hymn singing. We have access to print and digital hymn books and hymns on YouTube, iTunes and Spotify. But this wasn’t always the case in church history, and it’s one of the lesser discussed achievements of the Reformation.
Even though Martin Luther did not invent the German hymn, he transformed—better yet, reformed!—the place and singing of hymns in the Sunday worship service and in the home. He championed the writing of new hymns in the vernacular to familiar and singable tunes and rhythms, such as German folk songs, which would make them easier to remember. It’s been suggested that the success of the Reformation was in large part due to Lutheran doctrine being put to music in the words of the laity.
Singing, then, became one of the greatest evangelism tools of the Reformation.
Luther put his theology in the mouths of the common people through his hymns. In the preface of his 1524 hymnal, Luther wrote that the purpose ofthese hymns was “to promote and popularize the Gospel.”
Luther wrote a third of his hymns within the span of one year, 1523-24. Even women participated in the writing of hymns and editing of hymnals. Elisabeth Cruciger wrote a hymn called, “Lord Christ, the Only Son of God,” and Katharina Schütz Zell edited a Bohemian hymn book for the laity in Strasbourg. Katharina wrote in her introduction to the hymnal:
So now (in response to this clear call that God makes to the world) encourage your children and relatives to sing godly songs in which they are exhorted to seek knowledge of their salvation. And teach them to know that they do not serve human beings but God, when they faithfully (in the faith) keep house, obey, cook, wash dishes, wipe up and tend children, and such like work that serves human life and that (while doing this very work) they can also turn toward God with the voice of song.
Of all the benefits of the hymns for the Reformers and for Christians since, perhaps one of the greatest gifts of the hymns is comfort at death.
I’ll never forget one September morning in 2018 when Timothy George, Paul House and I drove to the outskirts of Birmingham to visit a friend of Beeson, Frauken Collinson, who was about to die. Frauken was born in Germany in between the two World Wars.
Her parents were Christians, and her father was declared a “degenerate artist” during World War II for his religious paintings— many of them destroyed by the Nazis.
During our visit, she was awake but had difficulty speaking and mostly moaned and mumbled. We read Scripture and prayed. Paul then remembered the first few words of a 16th century German hymn, “O Freude über Freud.” As soon as he recited the first words of this hymn to her, Frauken very softly mouthed the rest of the first verse. She also mouthed the words of another song, David’s song, Psalm 23. She went to be with Jesus a few days later.
As we have been preparing and planning for this issue, I’ve been replaying this memory. Two hymns were so deep within her heart and memory that she was able to recall them at death’s door when she had little strength to say much else.
The final two verses of the hymn which Frauken sang, translated “O Joy of Joys,” capture so well this reality for the Christian at death:
Rejoice we now therefore
With songs this Child adore:
And from thy heart sincerely
Sing out with gladness clearly,
With heart and mouth we render
Due glory, praise, and splendor,
For on this day we celebrate
The time of grace from dawn till late.
O Christ, we sing to Thee,
Who man didst come to be,
The serpent’s head to smother,
And bring us to Thy Father,
His grace and love renewing,
Else death were our undoing:
O, grant us grace to worship
Thee Both now and in eternity.
So, brothers and sisters, sing on—both now and in eternity. As Miriam sang to the Israelites, “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted” (Ex 15:1). When your faith wavers, when you face trials, when you have no other words, when you need to be reminded of the gospel, when you encounter the grace of God, and when you come to the end of your life, sing again and again about what Jesus Christ has done for you.
And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on
And when from death I'm free,
I'll sing and joyful be
And through eternity I'll sing on, I'll sing on.
Kristen Padilla is Beeson’s manager of marketing and communication and director of The Center for Women in Ministry. She also is the author of Now That I'm Called: A Guide for Women Discerning a Call to Ministry.