500 years of the Protestant hymnal


In 2017, Protestantism celebrated the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation with numerous special festival events all over the world. However, few people (at least in southern Africa) know that next year will again be a year of great historical importance.

The 500-year existence of the Protestant hymnbook is then commemorated and celebrated; and hopefully with many glorious musical events in churches, schools and theatres. Since 2024 is a big and important year for Protestants (or evangelical Christians as they initially referred to themselves), I am happy to provide historical information for use by people with a musical and historical interest, in the confidence that this matter from here on out will receive the necessary attention.

Date of origin of the hymn book

According to the latest research(i), the first step in the history of the origin of the Protestant hymnbook is found in a letter(ii) that Martin Luther (1483 – 1546 AD) wrote towards the end of 1523 to Georg Spalatin (1484 – 1545 AD), the secretary of Elector Frederik the Wise of Saxony, sent.

In this letter, Luther requests Spalatin to intercede with the elector to support a project that would lead to the publication of a hymn book. He requests Spalatin himself, to collaborate as a gifted writer in the writing of useful hymns and the sealing of Psalms. Spalatin must also use his influence to persuade other gifted German poets to collaborate on this project. He recommends that the poets use his interpretation of the seven “Penitential Psalms” as well as the Psalms dealing with grace and mercy (Psalm 6, 32, 34, 51, 104, 130, 143) for their first attempts.

Luther therefore initially wanted to produce a Psalm book, with singable texts and melodies. This ideal was never realized. Numerous Psalms, such as Psalm 130(iii) “Out of deep need I call to You”, were however included in hymn books.

Next steps to the ideal

In 1524 the first songs appeared in print; and indeed as one-page prints, of which only four manuscripts have survived. The following songs made it to the printing press: “Now rejoice, dear congregation of Christ”; “God wants to have mercy on us”; “She believes in You, Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ, our Saviour”.

The next step was the Eight-song pressing, an overnight collection of the one-page prints, by the printer from Nürnberg, Jobst Gutknecht. This print cannot be counted as a book, as it was only a grouping of the single-page prints. One song that was not by Luther, but by Paul Speratus, “This is the salvation that has come to us”, had an explanation as to why the congregation can sing this song with a good conscience: This, like the other songs , is faithful to Scripture and serves the cause of the Reformation. A printer from Augsburg, Melchior Ramminger, printed another copy in 1524, as he realized the profitability of this industry.

In Erfurt, there appeared during 1524 two editions of a Enchiridion or a Handbook of spiritual Hymns (Handbuchlein geistlicher Gesänge). The first was probably from the printer Johann Loersfeld, while a later, competing edition was from the stable of Matthes Maler. Soon after, numerous collections of hymns were printed in Nürnberg, Breslau, Augsburg and Zwickau. These hymnals are all titled Christian Hymns and Psalms had. They were all between 16 and 96 pages long, and with them the Protestant hymnbook culture began.

In the same year, 1524, a book of hymns was also printed in Wittenberg, by Josef Klug. The Spiritual Hymn Book (Geystliche gesang Buchleyn), composed by the “arch office of the Reformation”, Johann Walter used 32 hymns, of which 24 came from Luther’s pen. He also included a song by a woman, Elisabeth Cruciger, a friend of Philipp Melanchthon, in this publication (an unprecedented step for that time). With this choral hymnbook, Walter and Luther wanted to teach the German population to sing through church choirs.

Luther also wrote an important preface to this publication which indicated the direction that would be expected from future hymnals. Everyone should know that it is good and acceptable to God for the congregation to sing Psalms and hymns to his glory (1 Corinthians 14:15-26; Colossians 3:6). Hymns faithful to Scripture are also gospel proclamation, and therefore cannot be underestimated. Finally, all musical instruments can be used to accompany the choral singing.

Thus Luther laid the foundation for a singing Christianity, and it is no surprise that the Lutheran Church was able to produce composers such as JS Bach and GF Händel; both experts on Luther’s theology.

Walter’s choral hymn book was not intended for congregational singing. Only in 1526 was a hymn book printed for the congregation in Wittenberg with the title A handbook of spiritual hymns and Psalms for the congregation members (Enchyridion geistlicher gesenge vnd psalmen für leyen). The volume contained 42 new hymns, plus an appendix of biblical songs such as the Magnificat and the Benedict, as well as hymns in which the Lord’s Prayer was expounded, and others that were suitable for use during sacrament service. By 1526 the church was ready to produce hymnals, all thanks to the foundation laid in 1524.

Luther’s hymns(iv)

Within the limited space available to me, I would like to make one comment about Luther’s poetry. His first song was a response to the murder of two Flemish members of the Augustinian emerite order (the Roman order to which Luther belonged), on 1 July 1523.

In light of the public burning of Hendrik Vos and Johannes van Esschen in Brussels, the hymn “Ons laat o new lied opklinking” (Ein neues Lied wir heben an), arise. Besides biblical themes, Christian martyrdom and existential threats were motivations for creating hymns. The “folk song” of the Reformation, “Ŗ Vaste burg is onse God” (1529)(v), is the most famous example for the motif of threat.

The importance of a hymn book

The Reformation taught Christianity to sing and made the Protestant Church (or the Evangelical Church) a singing church. It goes without saying that before the Reformation there was also singing on occasion, but singing was not a fixed element of the liturgy.

On October 5, 1542, at the dedication of the castle church in Torgau (the first church building built by the Protestants themselves), Martin Luther said the following about congregational singing: “A church building is a space where God speaks to us through his Word, and us with Him through prayer and song. A worship service is therefore an active relational event between God and man, where people can communicate with God together with others. In light of this, it must be said that congregational singing is a characteristic of the true church, and therefore they need hymnals.”

It is claimed that 100,000 German hymns have been written to date, of which 30,000 have been recorded in hymnals. After World War II, a Christian youth association, for example, sold 14 million copies of a 64-page hymnbook called The Mouth Belt, sold at 50c each. It is impossible to estimate how many songs in the rest of the Protestant world were written and recorded in hymnals. The number of hymnals sold must be in the billions.

In South Africa alone, millions upon millions of copies have probably been sold since the seventeenth century. Remember, we are not only talking about Afrikaans-speaking churches, but also about English-speaking Protestant churches such as the Presbyterian Church!

Next to the Bible, the hymn book was a precious possession of Christian households. Even though hard copy hymnals are rarely used these days, churchgoers, funeral attendees and wedding guests see the Psalms, Hymns and VONKK songs on a screen and sing along. Even though we cannot be described as a singing people, church singing, choral singing and solo singing of spiritual songs are nevertheless an important element of our national life. At least for this reason, 2024 should be a year of the church song.

An appeal is made to church councils, organists, choir leaders and solo artists to fill 2024 with old and new hymns that meet high linguistic, aesthetic and theological standards.

No date is prescribed for a festival, as the 1524 publications did not print a day or month on the cover. Unfortunately, a fixed date of origin in 1524 does not exist, and therefore an appropriate day and date must be decided upon.


(i) Johannes Schilling and Brinja Bauer, 2023, Singt dem Herrn ein neues Lied: 500 Jahre Evangelisches GesangbuchEvangelische Verlagsanstalt, Leipzig.

(ii) WA Br 3, 220, no. 698.

(iii) This Psalm was already rewritten by Luther before 1524, and then later printed and sold as a one-page piece.

(iv) Reliable information about the Luther hymns can be found at: Jürgen Heidrich & Johannes Schilling, 2017, Martin Luther: The SongReclam-Verlag, Stuttgart as well as Martin Geck, 2017, Luthers Lieder: Leuchttürme der Reformation, Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim.

(v) The song was written in 1527/28, but was not published until 1529. In this song, Psalm 46 and the existential threats of that time come together. The melody is also presumably from Luther’s pen.