Celebrating the 500 Year Legacy of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God”

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Celebrating the 500 Year Legacy of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God”

The famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven once said: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the Divine.” Perhaps many, especially musicians, know this famous quote by one of the most illustrious composers of all time. However, over 200 years earlier, Martin Luther, a fellow German, and the one who awakened Christendom with his theological protests, also recognized the power to be found in the arts of music and worship. Luther revolutionised more than the way Christians did theology, but also Christian music. On more than one occasion he declared:

“I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is the gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next to theology, I give music the highest place and the greatest honor.”[1]

Although some of his famous hymns remain popularly sung, it is often forgotten that Martin Luther (1483-1548) was not only a theological reformer but also a musician and composer. However, before we explore the impact his theological reform had upon both sacred and secular music, we must understand the musical context of the pre-reformation period.

Music in the Dark Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, power in Europe was passed on to the newly emerging Christian Church, which soon developed into what we know as the Roman Catholic Church. The Church dominated all aspects of life, dictating the direction of politics, economics and the arts. Consequently, in Europe, sacred music became the most prevalent, while secular music gradually diminished. The most notable occurrence was the rise of Gregorian chanting which was introduced by Pope Gregory I (590-604 AD), and used for liturgical purposes.[2] This style of music is a complex liturgical chant in Latin performed by choirs of trained men and boys. Two of the earliest examples of such chants are the Dies Irae[3] and the Pange Lingua.[4] Importantly, the congregation never joined the choir in praise because the chants were complex and reserved as an exclusive task for the chosen few who possessed the appropriate skills and training.

During this time, music theorists were largely monks and clergy in charge of developing liturgical music for the Roman Catholic Mass. Moreover, music annotation was the product of an exclusive number of clergy and monks over a period of hundreds of years.[5] Outside of the church, music developed only on a very small scale because it was passed on and developed only through oral tradition. At the time, reading and writing were almost exclusively reserved for educated people. Thus, given that only the privileged classes could afford an education, and the writing of music was labourious and expensive, it was rare that either secular or folk-religious songs were recorded on paper. Rather, as the exclusive task of the Church, all music was essentially controlled by the Church. The laity or common people were only integrated as part of what one might call community engagement by the Church, or if a particular study was being done on folk music.[6]

Over time, some within the Church realized the waning impact their methods had on the quality of worship. Among them was Erasmus, the famous Dutch Christian humanist of the early 16th century, who condemned the clergy and monks for considering music the whole of religion while its very construction was preventing the congregation from hearing one distinct word.[7] In his view, music was removed three times from the people, through their non-participation, the Latin language, and the sophisticated elaboration of the music that kept the text sung hidden.[8] However, during his time, he remained the only serious critical voice of objection and was never associated with any of the reformers. Yet his objections prepared the context for a later revolution.

Martin Luther: the Musician

The Reformation erased and rebuilt the worship style in church services. As a reaction, the Lutheran chorals were created. The songs were based on simple harmonies and native language, in order to encourage the congregation to join in worship.[9] But how did this happen? The story is found in one Martin Luther.

As indicated earlier, Luther had a natural predisposition towards the arts, especially music. Although born into a relatively modest middle class family, his education was extensive and included music, singing, and dancing lessons. He could masterfully distinguish between the distinct musical genres.[10] Other contemporaries and friends of his, like Melanchthon, enjoyed the same educational privileges and appreciated his contributions. During his Master of Arts at the University of Erfurt, Luther learned how to play the flute while confined to his own room due to an illness.[11] His musical skills were later refined in the monastery where liturgy was at its heart. Years later, he would compose songs from the Psalms.[12] These became emblems of his theological reforms echoing their liberating messages through the centuries that followed.

Luther held the belief that music is a powerful missionary tool in spreading the Gospel message. History demonstrates the correctness of this claim, as music’s role for the holy endeavour of evangelism has been featured prominently. Music has many important neurological and psychological effects on the brain, but here I will share just a few that I think especially pertinent.

Neurological and Psychological Benefits of Music

Firstly, melodies and tunes create deep emotional resonances and can bring about a feeling of the familiar, with or without us recalling specific memories.[13] Suddenly, one feels reminiscent, joyful or in tears. Music has the ability to take one inside of oneself and it can induce introspective reflection. Ellen White, a reformer from the 19th century, and supporter of Luther, shares a similar sentiment in more than one of her countless comments about music: “Music was made to serve a holy purpose, to lift the thoughts to that which is pure, noble, and elevating, and to awaken in the soul devotion and gratitude to God.”[14] However, caution must be employed with our love for music. In like fashion, through corruption, music can become one of Satan’s most alluring agencies of temptation. Careful distinction must be exerted between using these means to glorify God and making them the subject of our praise or admiration.

Secondly, music is very ‘catchy’, and we all have experiences where we appear helpless as our mind replays a song or tune, which are sometimes referred to as earworms. It is believed that such preservative music has the nature of a cerebral automatism, with cerebral networks, perhaps both cortical and subcortical, which together form a circuit of mutual excitement. We all are verbal creatures, but the power of the audible extends beyond language. Indeed, most of us do not carry verbal ‘earworms’ comparable to our musical ones.[15] Therefore, a lay person without any theological training or specific understanding and passion could simply use a song to reach a neighbour, family member or friend, in perhaps a very meaningful way.

There is a third significant reason that makes music a pivotal instrument in spreading the Good News (though I note the potential list does not necessarily end here).

Music encourages contact between individuals when it is both produced and performed. At these venues music can engage co-pathy.[16] This means that the inter-individual emotional states are altered in those participating which can decrease conflicts and promote cohesion of a group. It will not be an empathic experience (thinking about how one would feel in certain circumstances). Instead, one will almost experience congruent feelings to what the other individual is feeling.[17] It has been shown that music leads to better coordination and cooperation between individuals, which can finally achieve social cohesion.[18] It literally binds a group together. Battle fields were commonly accompanied by a marching tune that kept soldiers united and focused on obtaining the same goal, despite their own individual roles within the army. Social cohesion offers benefits such as increased health and life expectancy, confidence in reciprocal care, but most importantly it facilitates the experience of communion.[19] It reminds me of the well-known song verse and prayer: “Binds us together Lord, binds us together Lord, with chords that cannot be broken.”

Luther, in his time, may have not have possessed the technical understandings that psychologists today describe concerning the significant effects music has on people. However, in spite of that, it is clear he intuitively understood them and God ingeniously combined his musical knowledge and passion for truth to enrich the way people worshiped and communed. The German Mass was sprinkled with musical innovations, particularly hymns in the native language. These innovations are considered the reason for the rapid increase and popularity of the German Mass.[20] The hymns were an exhibit of creativity in the German Mass more so than anything offered in the liturgical order, primarily because they served a didactic purpose. Luther often collaborated with well known contemporary German composers to aid in the creation of hymns.[21]

Not All Harmonious? Criticism of Luther’s Music

It has been argued that Luther’s musical reforms lacked innovation, and rather that Luther’s conservative inclinations only led him to borrow from the past and adapt it to the present.[22] In other words, some of his contributions were more a creation of copying and pasting. However, in its purest essence, the reformation was about the restoration of biblical truth and practices. Looking back into the early Christian church we see that the most evident characteristics of the worship style were prayer, singing, and eating of the agape feast or communion.[23] The early fourth century church historian, Eusebius (313-339), shares an impressive testimony relating to worship through songs:

“Throughout the world in cities, in villages, and in the country in all the churches of God the people of Christ, who have been chosen out of all the nations, sent up, not to the native gods nor to demons but to the one God spoken of by the prophets, hymns and psalmody with a loud voice so that the sound of those singing can be heard by those standing outside.”[24]

The Apostle Paul described the worship style of the first centuries in 1 Corinthians 14:15 “I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray also with the mind; I will sing praise with the Spirit, and I will sing praise also with the mind.” The description by Paul here was meant to teach the Corinthians on how they ought to worship in the assembly. Singing played a very important role during the first century Christian church practices. It was mutual and reciprocal. Therefore, Luther simply recognised that this powerful practice was lost and arrested by inaccessible language and melody.

Conclusion–Music Outside of the Church in the post-Reformation

In conclusion, Luther’s musical reformation influenced vastly not only the strictly religious music, but also contributed to the changes of music outside the Church, in mostly positive ways. His chorales were the catalyst of many musical changes in Germany. Johann Sebastian Bach adopted the Lutheran teachings and chorales, which have inspired his cantatas, masses and Passions. Felix Mendelssohn followed in the same footsteps and revived some of Bach’s work. Later on, Brahms uses the same inspiration to adapt the text for “A German Requiem.”[25]

I personally am as passionate about the powerful tool of music which God has entrusted to us, and wish to celebrate 500 years of biblical Reform, including its role and impact on worship and music. Luther not only initiated a theological Reformation which we must continue, but his reformation of worship and music must be continued–seeking the good from the past while developing the good in the present. I am very delighted to know that the book of Revelation reveals that the hearts and minds of the redeemed, which will remain tuned to the song of the Lamb, will never cease from praising God in and with music.




[1] Martin Luther, as cited in Bill Henderson, Simple Gifts: Great Hymns: One Mans’ Search for Grace (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 20.

[2] A short history of musical notation, as found at: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/music-notation-history.htm

[3] Dies Irae (Day of Wrath), as found at: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/scores/gregorian-dies-irae.htm

[4] Pange Lingua (Tell Tongue) as found at: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/scores/gregorian-pange-lingua.htm

[5] Nicolae Sfetcu, The Music Sound, 2014, p 2-3.

[6] A short history of musical notation, as found at: http://www.mfiles.co.uk/music-notation-history.htm

[7] Jonathan P. Willis, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England, 2010, p 45.

[8] Ibid, p 46.

[9] Carlos Gomez Amat and Joaquin Turina Gomez, Pequeña Historia de la Musica,1995, page 12.

[10] Albert Ehrnrooth, Martin Luther’s musical Reform, 2017, as found at: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/features/martin-luthers-musical-reformation

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Oliver Sacks, The power of music, Brain (2006) 129 (10): 2528-2532, at 2529.

[14] Ellen White, Christian Education, CE 62.3.

[15] Oliver Sacks, The power of music, Brain (2006) 129 (10): 2528-2532, at 2530.

[16] Stefan Koelsch, Brain&Music, 2012, p 209.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, p 211.

[19] Ibid, p 212.

[20] Dirk G. Lange, Martin Luther’s Reform of Worship, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, 2017.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Adam Hough, “Martin Luther and Musically Expressed Theology,” Illumine vol.1, No.1, 2012, p29.

[23] John Arthur Smith, Music in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, 2011, p 198.

[24] Eusebius of Caesarea, Commentary on the Psalms, 65.10-15.

[25] Albert Ehrnrooth, “Martin Luther’s musical Reformation,” 2017, as found at: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/features/martin-luthers-musical-reformation

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About the author

Rebeca Ene

Rebeca Ene works as a legal adviser for a charity in the UK. She is passionate about music and its effects on the human brain. She has been part of an organized choir during high school where she recognized the evangelistic power of music. She believes that the uncorrupted forms of music/arts will be among the few things that we will bring into heaven for further exploration and enjoyment.