A Hymn of the Old Order

Article excerpt

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. …