If there is one hymn that deserves the title of "signature hymn" of Anabaptist faith, and that deserves wider use, it is the hymn "O Gott Vater, wir loben dich" ("Our father God, thy name we praise"). It is an old hymn, but it remains popular. In fact, the Old Order Amish sing it during every Sunday worship service. Several other Anabaptist groups, including the Old Order River Brethren, also use the hymn in translation.1 This essay will describe the origin of the hymn, discuss its meaning in the context of Old Order thought and practice, and describe the Old Order style of singing it.
The hymn finds its origin in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century. Leenaerdt Clock, its author, was a "Mennonite preacher who moved from Germany to Holland around 1590."2 Not much is known about him apart from his writing. He composed four hundred hymns along with devotional literature, published several songbooks, and worked at drafting documents of faith to bring together the German with the Dutch Mennonites.3 Clock's hymn became a fixture when it appeared in the 1622 edition of the Ausbund.
The Ausbund is a German -language hymnal noted today for its long use by the Old Order Amish. The earliest segments of the book appeared in 1564 as poems written by Anabaptists imprisoned for their faith. Although only the Amish use the book today, many Mennonites have used it in years past.4 Thus, this hymnal has the distinction of being the longestused Christian hymnal ever - nearly four hundred fifty years of continuous use.
The Old Order Amish retain the German language in their worship services and use a German dialect ("Pennsylvania German") in their daily life. The other Old Order groups, who have abandoned their mother tongue, retain English versions of the hymn. The translation used by the Old Order River Brethren is by an English Baptist minister, Ernest A. Payne (1902-1980). His translation was published in 1962 in the British Baptist hymnbook and also in the American Baptist hymnal of 1975.5 The translation moved into Old Order circles via the 1969 Mennonite hymnal.6 Currently the Old Order River Brethren sing it from their 1980 edition ?? Spiritual hymns.7
Although this context - sixteenth -century Holland - is the time and place from which the hymn descends, it is to the meaning of the hymn in the Old Order River Brethren context (the context most familiar to the author) that this essay will turn next. Today, local thought and practice take the old hymn and add new meaning to it.
For example, the direct reference to voices (in the English version) can be read to support unaccompanied singing. Among the Old Order groups, a cappella singing, often in unison, stands unquestioned as the appropriate way of bringing public worship to God. Standard practice marginalizes musical instruments to the home or to informal group settings. Traditionally, "singing" and "music" were strongly separated.8 The former was acceptable in worship, while "music," meaning musical instruments or even singing in harmony, was (or still is) unnecessary or harmful.
The word "assembled" also brings to mind a concept that used to be an Anabaptist distinctive. It refers to a voluntary assembly, a "free church" (versus a "state church," established and supported with the help of the civic leaders). In fifteenth -century Europe, the first- generation Anabaptists pioneered this concept in the middle of the religious upheaval of the time. These radicals agreed somewhat with Martin Luther and others who were rejecting their religious authorities and beginning a new way of being church. Very few of these reformers, however, implemented or even conceptualized much of a change in the relationship between church and state.
A radical fringe did so. Their concept of a "free church" called them to reject some of the deepest structures of society, including the infant baptism that initiated all members of society into the state church. Rejecting their own infant baptism, they baptized themselves again - hence the term Anabaptist.9
The insubordination of these mostly low- class, loosely organized dissenters angered the state churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Soon the radicals were persecuted from all sides. All across Western Europe they were outlawed, exiled, even killed.10
Today the concept of the free church is commonplace in North America. Nevertheless, memories of the painful early days live on in this hymn. The Lord, not any earthly authority, calls the meetings of the voluntary worshipping community. Further, those worshippers hear Him by preaching of the Word, not by the sacraments (rejected by the radicals) or by the priesthood (also rejected).
Stanzas 2 and 3 follow the motion of worship from gathering to preaching, and - quickly - to living. True to Anabaptist custom, they emphasize that the preaching of the Word needs to be applied to life, holy life frommen Leben). This application to life is crucial. Anabaptists took as their favorite quotation from Jesus the two short words "Follow me" (Matthew 4:19). Although being born again sets a believer on the way, applying the word to life makes the believer want to be pious, ( ccwir fromm mögen werden**), causes him to live in righteousness (Gerichtigkeit), and protects him from deception ( "bleib'n wir unbetrogen").
The word Gemein in stanza 4 the German-speaking Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites still use to refer to their worship gatherings. It emphasizes that the worshippers gather to meet one another and God, often in houses, barns, schools, and the like - not to attend a "church." The Old Order River Brethren (English-speaking) preserve this concept by using the phrase "going to meeting" instead of the common English phrase "going to church." This phrasing reminds them that the people themselves are the assembly, the ekklësia in New Testament Greek. The building is merely a meeting place, and the word "church" should be reserved for the people themselves.
Stanza 4 concludes the hymn with a quotation from the Lord's Prayer, a prayer which Old Orders often recite to conclude their own prayers. This quotation ties the hymn closely to the center of the worship service - prayer. Better yet, in German the hymn even concludes with the word Amen.
While the hymn text itself is memorable as a touchstone of Anabaptist faith, the tunes used with it add their own unique dimensions. The Old Order singing style features melodies that have been passed on orally by generation after generation. During this process of transmission, the melodies have changed. Because they are sung so slowly, they have accrued ornamentations and embellishments. The Old Order Amish sing the most slowly of all, with the most embellishments. Example 1 shows the opening line of "O Gott Vater."11 The four stanzas can require more than fifteen minutes to sing.
There has been some confusion about the nature and origin of these intricate tunes. Some observers, judging by the slow, melismatic style, have speculated that they are a vestige of medieval plainchant. A more thoughtful conclusion, however, identifies the Amish tunes as descendants of Reformation-era folk tunes. An excellent article by Hedwig Durnbaugh, a leading scholar of Anabaptist- German hymnody, summarizes and extends this interpretation.12 Durnbaugh concludes not only that the melodies have changed over time, but also that many of the embellishments exemplify "standard embellishments of Baroque music" such as the trill, the mordent, the passing note, and the appoggiatura.13
Some work has been done in tracing these ornamented melodies back to their original sources. The Amish tune pictured in the figure ultimately is a variant of a melody published first in Kirchenampt (Strassburg, 1525), entitled aus tiefer not after Luther's hymn of that title. The tune in example 2 shows the less embellished style of the Old Order River Brethren tradition.14 In this style, four stanzas would require eight to ten minutes to perform. This tune descends from nun freut euch, a tune published in J. Klug's Geistliche Lieder (Wittenberg, 1535).
The text and its tunes come from far- separated times and places, yet worshipping communities combined them and held them together for hundreds of years. The cohesiveness of this pairing reflects in a small way the cohesiveness of the communities themselves. They are communities joined anew each week when they repeat the words of this signature hymn, joined both with one another and with generation after generation of singers gone before.
O Gott Vater, wir loben dich
O Gott Vater, wir loben dich
Und deine Güte preisen,
die du, o Herr, so gnädiglich
an uns neu hast bewiesen;
und hast uns, Herr, zusammeng'führt,
uns zu ermahnen durch dein Wort.
Gib uns Genad zu diesem!
Offne den Mund, Herr, deiner Knecht,
gib ihn'n Weisheit daneben,
daß sie dein Wort mög'n sprechen recht,
was thent zum frommen Leben
und nützlich ist zu deinem Preis.
Gib uns Hunger nach solcher Speis,
das ist unser Begehren.
Gib unserm Herzen auch Verstand,
Erleuchtung hier auf Erden,
daß dein Wort in uns werd bekannt,
daß wir fromm mögen werden
und leben in Gerechtigkeit,
achten auf dein Wort allezeit.
So bleib'n wir unbetrogen.
Dein, o Herr, ist das Reich allein
und auch die Macht zusammen.
Wir loben dich in der Gemein
und danken deinem Namen
und bitten dich aus Herzens Grund,
wollst bei uns sein zu dieser Stund,
durch Jesum Christum, Amen.
Our father God, thy name we praise
Our father God, thy name we praise,
to thee our hymns addressing,
and joyfully our voices raise,
thy faithfulness confessing:
Assembled by thy grace, O Lord,
we seek fresh guidance from thy word;
now grant anew thy blessing.
Touch, Lord, the lips that speak for thee;
set words of truth before us,
that we may grow in constancy,
the light of wisdom o'er us.
Give us this day our daily bread;
may hungry souls again be fed;
may heavenly food restore us.
Lord, make thy pilgrim people wise,
the gospel message knowing,
that we may walk with lightened eyes
in grace and goodness growing.
The righteous must thy precepts heed;
thy word alone supplies their need,
from heav'n their succor flowing.
As with our brethren here we meet,
thy grace alone can feed us,
as here we gather at thy feet
we pray that thou wilt heed us.
The power is thine, O Lord divine,
the kingdom and the rule are thine.
May Jesus Christ still lead us!
1 TlIe term Anabaptist refers to descendants of the Radical Reformation of the fifteenth century. See more below. The term "Old Order" refers to the more traditional segments of this group. Over 150,000 Old Order Amish, the segment most marked for its traditional ways, live in communities scattered across North America. The Old Order River Brethren are a smaller group of only 300 members in Pennsylvania and several other states. For more on the River Brethren people and their music see my Handbook to "Spiritual hymns3* (Paradise, PA: Paradise Publications, 2003), especially the bibliography. Available at books. goo gle.com/books? id =6WXvA9TDNSAC
2 Mary Oyer, Exploring the Mennonite hymnal: Essays (Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1980), 116. Mennonites are another group descended from the Radical Reformation.
3 Songs of the Ausbund: History and translations of Ausbund hymns (Millersburg, OH: Ohio Amish Library, 2001), 328. For more about the Ausbund see also The earliest hymns of the Ausbund (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003).
4 Benuel Blank, The amazing story of the Ausbund (Narvon, PA: B. S. Blank, 2001).
5 Oyer, Exploring the Mennonite hymnal, 117; also Clarence Y. Fretz, Handbook to the Anabaptist hymnal (Hagerstown, MD: Deutsche Buchhandlung, 1989), 24.
6 The Mennonite hymnal, (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1969), no. 384.
7 A collection of spiritual hymns, rev. ed. (Lancaster, PA: Old Order River Brethren, 1980).
8 Herbert Royce Saltzman, A historical study of the function of music among the Brethren in Christ (DMA diss., University of Southern California, 1964).
9 This history is widely documented. See such works as George Huntston Williams, The radical Reformation. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962) or C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist history and theology: An introduction (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1995).
10 The persecution and martyrdom are memorialized in a tome by the Mennonite preacher Thieleman J. van Braght entitled The bloody theater; or, Martyrs mirror published first in Dutch in 1660 at Dordrecht, South Holland.
11 Taken from the Amish- Mennonite hymnal by John J. Overholt entitled The Christian hymnary (Uniontown, OH: Christian Hymnary Publishers, 1972). no. 411.
12 Durnbaugh, Hedwig T, "The Amish singing style: Theories of its origin and description of its singularity," Pennsylvania Mennonite 22:2 (April 1999):24-31.
13 Durnbaugh, "Amish singing style," 28.
14 FrOm Sauder, Handbook to "Spiritual hymns. *
Myron Sauder teaches English and music at Faith Mennonite High School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The fascinating hymn tradition of his church, the Old Order River Brethren, prompted him to produce Handbook for "Spiritual hymns," a companion volume featuring musical transcriptions of their oral hymn-tune tradition.…