What Is a Hymn Heritage?

By Westermeyer, Paul | The Hymn, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

What Is a Hymn Heritage?


Westermeyer, Paul, The Hymn


[Editor's note: The author delivered this plenary address at the 2007 Hymn Society Conference at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.]

Making It Up

On the Sunday before Memorial Day, Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I teach, celebrated its one hundred and thirty-eighth commencement. We sang three hymns. The first was "O Day Full of Grace," a pre-Reformation Scandinavian folk hymn which, stimulated by the Lutheran Reformation, received its first printing in Danish in the sixteenth century, was reworked in the nineteenth century by the Lutheran churchman Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig, and then received English versions in Lutheran hymnals in this country. We sang one of two versions given in the most recent hymnal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006). It is a translation by Gerald Thorson, a twentieth-century professor of English at St. Olaf College, which is a Lutheran college in Northfield, Minnesota. The tune, DEN SIGNEDE DAG, was written for and is usually used with this text. It is by Christoph E. Weyse, the nineteenth-century Danish Lutheran church musician and composer.

The Hymn of the Day followed the reading of the "great commission" in Matthew 28 and a sermon on that text. It was, as one might expect, "Lord, You Give the Great Commission." The text is by the twentieth-century Anglican priest, bishop, and teacher Jefferey Rowthorn; and the tune, ABBOT'S LEIGH, is by the twentieth-century Anglican musician and theologian Cyril V. Taylor.

The last hymn was sung to the tune PRAISE MY SOUL (also known as LAUDA ANIMA or BENEDIC ANIMA), by John Goss, the nineteenth-century Anglican organist at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The text we used is a recent one, "Voices Raised to You," by the former President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Herman G. Stuemplfe Jr., who recently died.

On the Wednesday after Commencement I received an e-mail. It had been sent to the Registrar who forwarded it to others through whom I got it. It came from a relative of one of the graduates. She said, "One of the things that lured me to the Lutheran church some 25 years ago was respect for the tradition." Not surprisingly, therefore, she signed herself a "traditional Lutheran." She said she was privileged to attend Luther Seminary's "graduation ceremony" and expressed thanks for the processions in and out, the organ, the brass quartet, the preacher, and "the program" which she regarded as "exceptional." But she was disappointed that "none of the three songs" the congregation sang was "familiar." She said that "no one" knew them and "no one" sang them. She was more upset that we used the ecumenical version of the Lord's Prayer and not the "sacred" traditional one. She asked if we were trying "to be hip" or "more relevant" or "more modern" for what or for whom.

I thought her note deserved a response, so the Seminary Pastor suggested I write one. I did, ran it by a number of people on the staff for their comments and approval, and sent it. Since a committee had planned this service and my involvement came only minimally at the end of the process, I indicated I could not speak for all the planners but was willing to address her concerns. I said the "songs" we sang were familiar to many Lutherans, that people near me were singing them quite lustily, that familiarity in our fractured society and church life is complex, and that what we sang was close to the center of the tradition. As to the Lord's Prayer, I explained that we were simply doing what Luther and the sixteenth-century Reformers called for, praying in our language. I said we were not trying to be hip at all but were expressing the deepest possible respect for the tradition, and that many Lutherans regularly used the vernacular version of the Lord's Prayer that we had used. She sent back a brief response right away. She thanked me for my reply and found my "explanation interesting. …

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