‘Born for nothing but music’

by Rev. Dr. Jon D. Vieker

All great men were once teenagers, and some of them teenage musicians. At age 18, Walther wrote in his diary, “I feel that I am born for nothing but music,” to which he added, “within which I don’t see myself making much headway.”

Typical of many teenagers, Walther was hard on himself, and his pastor father wasn’t particularly enthused about furthering the education of a future starving artist. So old man Walther offered his young son a dollar a week to study theology at the University of Leipzig.

“The heart of a man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Walther’s dad made an offer that was hard to refuse, yet his son’s love of music eventually became a powerful tool in the service of the Gospel.

Pastor as musician

The notion of pastors as musicians was actually nothing new to Lutherans. Martin Luther himself was the archetype of the musician/theologian. Trained in voice and even music theory, Luther provided the church in his day with dozens of hymns and hymn melodies. Others followed in his train, most notably Philipp Nicolai (“Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying,” LSB 516) and Martin Rinckart (“Now Thank We All Our God,” LSB 895).

Even without extensive university training as a musician, C. F. W. Walther might be thought of in today’s terms as being on the level of a semi-professional. His primary instrument was the keyboardboth piano and organ. During his studies in Leipzig, he also certainly imbibed the rich musical fare that this university town had to offer, including the famous Leipzig Singakadame and Gewandhaus Orchestra.

When Walther later immigrated to America and was called as pastor of Trinity Lutheran, St. Louis, his music-making continued. In 1865, under Walther’s direction, the congregation commissioned for its worship space a 65-rank Pfeffer pipe organ, the largest and finest in St. Louis. Despite his many duties, Walther often found time to go over to the church and play this instrument. In fact, on high festivals, we are told that Walther was often the organist. He could also sight-read (one of the more difficult musical skills) with remarkable ability. One account tells of his sight-reading (along with another piano player) of a four-hand transcription of Beethoven’s entire Second Symphony in D Major.

‘Only pure Lutheran hymns’

Walther was called as pastor of Trinity in 1841 at the tender age of 30. A year later, the congregation embarked on an aggressive building project to construct a new sanctuary. Shortly after the building was finished, the congregation resolved that “only pure Lutheran hymns and worship forms were to be used” in their new sanctuary. But how would this happen, since the hymnals they had brought with them from Germany were full of theological problems, not to mention falling apart from age and use?

In November 1845, at the suggestion of Pastor Walther, the voters assembly at Trinity resolved to undertake the development and production of a new hymnal. The following January, Walther and six laymen were appointed to serve on a hymnbook committeewith Walther as editor-in-chief and the laymen to monitor the expenses.

When the hymnal finally roared off the printing press some 16 months later, Walther described the chief considerations that he had brought to the task of hymn selection:

In the selection of the adopted hymns the chief consideration was that they be pure in doctrine; that they have almost universal acceptance within the orthodox German Lutheran Church and have thus received the almost unanimous testimony that they had come forth from the true spirit [of Lutheranism]; that they express not so much the changing circumstances of individual persons but rather contain the language of the whole church, because the book is to be used primarily in public worship; and finally that they, though bearing the imprint of Christian simplicity, be not merely rhymed prose but the creations of a truly Christian poetry.

Walther’s essential criteriathat the hymns be pure in doctrine, be widely accepted as Lutheran, be geared for corporate worship and contain the highest poetic integrityreveal his perceptive and pastoral approach to worship leadership in an ever-changing, 19th-century, American environment.

Musically, Walther was a devoted advocate for using the rhythmic version of Lutheran chorale melodiesthat is, the livelier, syncopated version rather than the more straight-laced, isometric version. (See LSB 656 and 657 for “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” set to the rhythmic and isometric versions respectively.) The rhythmic versions of the old chorales were the original, and Walther believed that these older versions of the tunes were much more interesting and enlivening to sing as a congregation. In this way, the Missouri Synod was nearly a century ahead of Lutherans in Germany in the recovery and reintroduction of these lively, original melodies into congregational use.

Textually, Walther rejected the theologically toxic contents of the Rationalist hymnals that he and the Saxons had brought with them from Germany. Instead, he reached back to the older Saxon hymnals, before the time of Rationalism, and used them as sources for restoring not only the texts that had been theologically corrupted, but also to establish an outline for organizing his American hymnal. Following the older Saxon model of hymnal organization, the hymns in Walther’s hymnal were organized according to the Church Year, catechism, Word and Sacraments, times and seasons, and the Christian life. In fact, the same basic outline of hymns in Walther’s hymnal of 1847 has been followed in every Missouri Synod hymnal since.

A lasting legacy

Walther’s hymnal of 1847 went on to become the first hymnal of the Missouri Synodreprinted again and again for nearly a hundred years and millions of Lutherans. It brought the texts of hundreds of Lutheran hymn treasures into widespread use among German immigrants in America. And when it came time for the Missouri Synod to transition from German to English at the dawn of the 20th century, the popularity of the German chorale texts and melodies that Walther had introduced some 60 years earlier provided guidance to the editors of Missouri’s first English-language hymnals as they made their own hymn selections. Nearly half of the hymns in Walther’s hymnal of 1847 were carried forward into these early English-language hymnals, with the result that nearly 40 percent of their hymns were German in origin.

Walther’s first love was music. Like Luther and those before him, the Lord used that good gift to proclaim His saving Gospel on the wings of song. And the blessings continue. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).

> The hymnal compiled by Walther and his parishioners was given by Trinity, St. Louis, as a gift to the Missouri Synod.

About the Author: The Rev. Jon D. Vieker serves as senior assistant to the president of The Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod.

October 2011


“Jesus, in the Storm You Hear Us” 

by C. F. W. Walther

1. Jesus, in the storm You hear us,
Your disciples’ dreadful cries.
Let Your gracious presence cheer us,
Let Your sunshine fill our eyes.
We are shouting, “Lord, we perish!”
Caught in panic’s faithless cord.
Turn and face death’s image garish,
Show Yourself as God and Lord.

2. Though at first You chide the smallness
Of the faith Your flock displays,
Courage that stood once in tallness
Fills with doubt in darker days.
Still You choose to treat the weakness–
Not break off the reed with blame
Nor blow out the cow’ring bleakness
Of faith’s flick’ring candle-flame.

3. You stand up; the wind and waters
Heed the voice of Your command:
“Peace! Be still!” and at your orders
All their troubling noise is banned.
Silenced is the storm completely,
Waves diminished from their height.
All the clouds are parted sweetly,
And the sea is mirror bright.

4. Awed, they marvel at their Master,
Witnessing a deed divine.
While averting their disaster,
You rekindle faith to shine.
“Who is this,” their hearts now wonder,
“That the wind and sea obey?”
Hon’ring You who rule the thunder,
“Can this be the Christ?” they say.

5. I don’t wonder, I believe it!
Faith and witness are agreed.
Best of blessings, I receive it,
By the Spirit guaranteed.
You’re the one that God appointed
Savior and the Christ, alone
Lord of Lords and God’s anointed,
Seated at God’s heav’nly throne.

6. And, without a hesitation,
From the depths I cry to You
When the sea’s intense vexation
Shakes the hull and keel right through,
Ev’ry single sail is shredded,
Ev’ry mast snapped off with fright.
In the dark storms I have dreaded,
As you promised, be my Light.

7. So whenever I am sinking
In the storms my heart sustains,
Let Your grace be in my thinking;
In Your will my heart remains.
Life without You is not living.
With You, death is not the fear
That hell’s fury would be giving,
But that You are always near.
Translated by Robert E. Voelker, 2010. Used by permission. ForaPDFversion of this hymn including Walther’s tune and a new setting, pleasecontact him at rev@mnsi.net.


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