Hymn of the Week: October 31
by David Sinden, Organist & Director of Music
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Ladue
Hymn 687/688: “A mighty fortress is our God”
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. More than 500 years later, our Hymnal 1982 is indebted to Martin Luther and the tradition of Lutheran hymnody that began after that first Reformation Day. Carl Schalk suggests that Luther “[gave] emphasis to various incipient and emerging forms of popular religious song and to elevate them to a significant place in the worship of the Lutheran Church.”
In the sixteenth century, a new repertoire of Lutheran hymns developed from various sources. Lutherans used existing forms like Gregorian chant (see Hymn 54, derived from the Latin melody found at Hymn 55), and Liesen, so-called because they ended with some form of “Kyrie eleison” (Hymn 319). Cantios, extra-liturgical spiritual songs (Hymn 107), also found liturgical acceptance. Secular melodies were re-texted with sacred words (Hymn 168/169).
But Luther himself spearheaded a new Lutheran movement to compose new vernacular texts and set them to new tunes. One place Luther turned for inspiration was the Psalms. Luther’s setting — both words and music — of Psalm 130 is at Hymn 151: “From deepest woe I cry to thee.” Luther wished for hymn writers more able than he to write more metrical paraphrases of the psalms and set them to music.
Many heeded Luther’s call, but none surpassed Luther’s setting of his version of Psalm 46 to music if popularity is any guide. “A mighty fortress is our God” is phenomenally popular in hymnody across languages and denominations. In The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Robin Leaver notes, “this text and tune are among the most important of all Christian hymns.”
This hymn has garnered the nickname “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation” in opposition to Luther’s attitude about the work. Luther gave his hymn the title “A Hymn of Comfort.” The association of this hymn with defiance and provocation has more to do with Luther’s biography generally than his attitude toward this specific composition.
Perhaps Luther’s own words on Psalm 46 can help us better understand “A mighty fortress” as aiming to provide comfort and not provoke conflict.
“This is a psalm of thanksgiving which the people of Israel sang at that time in response to the miracles of God, who had defended and sustained the city of Jerusalem... [T]he essence of the city is portrayed as a little spring, a small rivulet that will not run dry, in contrast to the great rivers and oceans of the nations (that is, the great kingdoms, principalities and estates) that will dry up and disappear.
But we sing praise to God because he is with us — God who miraculously preserves his Word and Christendom against the gates of hell, against the ravings of all devils, fanatical spirits, the wold, the flesh, sin, death, etc., so that our little spring remains a living fountain, while foul and stinking drains, puddles and cisterns will run dry.
A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing:
for still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and, armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing;
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing:
dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his Name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us;
we will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us;
the prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure,
one little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever.
Martin Luther (1483–1546); tr. Frederic Henry Hedge (1805–1890); based on Psalm 46