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Luther, Calvin, and the Recovery of Congregational Singing. Is the Reformers’ Legacy at Risk?

From the earliest days of the church, Christians who gathered for corporate worship spent at least some of their time together singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16). However, in Roman Catholic churches at the outset of the Protestant Reformation, “priests chanted in Latin, and choirs of professional singers predominantly sang polyphonic choral music in Latin.” As Paul S. Jones writes, “there was neither congregational song nor any church music in the common tongue.”[1]

Think about that for a moment: At the time Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door, in the corporate worship of the Catholic church there was neither (1) congregational singing, nor (2) any church music sung in the language that was spoken by the worshipers. For Christians today––at least for most of us, at least for the moment––such a situation seems almost incomprehensible. Yet that historical reality, largely unknown to contemporary Christians, is essential to this look at the Reformer’s legacy of recovering congregational singing in corporate worship.

The first and longest part of this paper will explore Martin Luther’s legacy. We will consider his understanding of the importance and power of music in the church and his contributions to the recovery of congregational singing, specifically his use of the chorale and his role in the development of hymnbooks. The essay’s second part will look at the contributions and legacy of John Calvin, noting where he agreed with, and where he differed from, Luther and highlighting Calvin’s emphasis on metrical psalmody.

The brief final portion of the paper will identify four current trends that seem to put at risk not only the Reformer’s specific legacy of congregational singing but also their larger understanding of Christian worship.

Luther, the Chorale, and the Hymnbook                            

As is frequently and rightly observed, Martin Luther (1483–1546) never wanted to establish a new ecclesiastical institution. He wanted to re-form the Roman Catholic Church; he wanted to help bring the church in which he had been raised back into conformity with New Testament doctrines and practices. Since part of what Luther wanted to recover was congregational singing, it will help to take a quick look at early Christian hymnody.

The practice of God’s people singing in corporate worship goes back at least to the Psalms. Many psalms seem to have been written to be sung to specific tunes. For example, Psalm 46 begins with the ascription, “To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.” The Hebrew word alamoth, literally “young women,” might be the name of the tune to which the psalm was intended to be sung, or it might indicate it was to be sung by what we today would call soprano voices. Whatever the exact meaning of alamoth in this context, the final words of the ascription, “a song,” clearly show this Psalm was meant to be sung.

The earliest hymns of the Christian era were written not by amateur musicians but by esteemed theologians. In the first three centuries, Antioch and Constantinople were hymn-writing centers for the early church. In the third and fourth centuries, hymn texts were written in Greek by church leaders including: Methodius, the bishop of Olympus; the Eastern Church leader Gregory of Nazianzus; and other Christian scholars now collectively known as the Early Church Fathers.

The first known writer of Christian hymns in Latin was the 4th-century French theologian Hilary of Poitiers. Soon after Hilary’s death, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan who was instrumental in Augustine’s conversion, helped establish the regular use of hymns and psalms in the developing liturgy of the Western Church.

However, by Luther’s time, while music was featured in Catholic corporate worship, congregational singing was nonexistent. Even when it became apparent that his break with the hierarchy was permanent, Luther still kept much of the Roman Catholic liturgy, including considerable use of Latin, in his worship services.

He also kept much Roman Catholic music, both plainchant and polyphony. Sometimes this music would use the original Latin text, sometimes those texts would be translated into German, and sometimes a new German text would be used with an old melody, a practice called contrafacta or parody. The esteemed music historian Donald Grout succinctly observes that Luther “believed strongly in the educational and ethical power of music and wanted all the congregation to take some part in the music of the services.”[2]  

Luther’s desire was quickly and widely realized. In the words of one church historian, as the Reformation spread: “The church was no longer composed of priests and monks; it was now the congregation of believers. All were to take part in worship … a taste for music was diffused throughout [Germany]. From Luther’s time, the people sang; the Bible inspired their songs. … Hence the revival, in the sixteenth century, of hymns … hymns were multiplied; they spread rapidly among the people, and powerfully contributed to rouse it from sleep.”[3]

The Chorale

Again quoting Grout, “The most distinctive and important musical contribution of the Lutheran church was the strophic congregational hymn called in German a Choral or Kirchenlied (church song) and in English chorale.”[4] Today we are most familiar with these chorales in their four-part harmonized settings, especially those written or arranged by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), the greatest Baroque composer and himself a Lutheran.

While many Lutheran chorales were in four parts, others, like plainchant (more widely known today as Gregorian Chant), contained just two elements: a text and a tune. These were written with the intent that they would be sung in unison by the entire congregation. And, just as polyphonic masses and motets, which use harmony and counterpoint, grew out of monophonic Gregorian Chant in the Catholic tradition, so much later Protestant church music can be understood as an outgrowth of the simplest unison Lutheran chorales.

The Hymnbook

It was not long before these chorales and hymns were collected and published. The earliest hymnbook of the Reformation––perhaps the earliest of all printed hymnbooks––was published at Wittenberg in 1524. Known as the Achtliederbuch, literally the eight-songs-book, it contained eight hymns, four of them by Luther. Three of Luther’s contributions were settings of Psalms: 12, 14, and 130. And as Ernest Ryden writes, “The little hymn-books flew all over Europe … Luther’s enemies lamented that ‘the whole people are singing themselves into his doctrines.’”[5]

That lament, coming from Luther’s theological opponents, is a testimony to Luther’s estimate of the educational power of music, which he articulates in his preface to the Achtliederbuch. Luther writes:

That it is good, and pleasing to God, for us to sing spiritual songs is, I think, a truth whereof no Christian can be ignorant; since not only the example of the prophets and kings of the Old Testament (who praised God with singing and music, poesy and all kinds of stringed instruments) but also the like practice of all Christendom from the beginning, especially in respect to psalms, is well known to every one: yea, St. Paul doth also appoint the same (1 Cor. xiv) and command the Colossians, in the third chapter, to sing spiritual songs and psalms from the heart unto the Lord, that thereby the word of God and Christian doctrine be in every way furthered and practiced. (emphasis added)

Accordingly, to make a good beginning and to encourage others who can do it better, I have myself, with some others, put together a few hymns, in order to bring into full play the blessed Gospel, which by God’s grace hath again risen: that we may boast, as Moses doth in his song (Exodus xv) that Christ is become our praise and our song, and that, whether we sing or speak, we may not know anything save Christ our Savior, as St. Paul saith (1 Cor. i).

These songs have been set in four parts, for no other reason than because I wished to provide our young people (who both will and ought to be instructed in music and other sciences) with something whereby they might rid themselves of amorous and carnal songs, and in their stead learn something wholesome, and so apply themselves to what is good with pleasure, as becometh the young. … The world is, alas, not so mindful and diligent to train and teach our poor youth.[6]

Without doubt, the most famous chorale from the Reformation era is Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God. The text is Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46, which, as we noted earlier, contains the ascription “A song.” Luther also wrote the tune. The exact date of the chorale’s composition is uncertain, but it is generally believed to have been written for the Diet of Spires in 1529, where the use of the term “protestant” was first recorded.[7] Whatever the occasion of its composition, Luther’s hymn was sung boldly as an affirmation of God’s power over forces that sought to disrupt God’s truth. Not without reason has the German chorale Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott long been known worldwide as “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.”

Before we move on to Calvin, Luther’s emphasis on training the young people of his day deserves a comment. In light of some contemporary trends I will identify at the end of this paper, it is noteworthy that Luther did not say that music in the churches needed to be adapted to the preferences of the churches’ younger members. Rather, he said the churches’ youth needed to be trained in music. That is a distinction those who want to continue Luther’s legacy might do well to ponder.

Calvin and the Psalms                                                                                                                                                              

Like Martin Luther, John Calvin (1509–1564) also grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike his older contemporary, Calvin was strongly opposed to keeping any Catholic elements in his worship services. Calvin did, however, share Luther’s understanding of the power and importance of music.

In his preface to an early version of the Genevan Psalter, Calvin said of music: “There is hardly anything in the world with more power to turn or bend, this way and that, the morals of men, as Plato has prudently considered.”

Calvin’s reference is to Plato’s Republic, where Plato insists that only music approved by the state be taught to children. Plato gives detailed instructions for what types of music are to be allowed in the Republic and what types are to be forbidden, writing: “The overseers of our state must … be watchful against innovations in music and gymnastics counter to the established order, and to the best of their power guard against them … For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions.”[8]

Echoing and amplifying Plato’s perspective, Calvin continues, “in fact we find by experience that it [music] has a secret and almost incredible power to move our hearts in one way or another. Wherefore we must be the more diligent in ruling it in such a manner that it may be useful to us and in no way pernicious.” Calvin adds:

Now in speaking of music I understand two parts, namely, the letter, or subject and matter, and the song, or melody. It is true that, as Saint Paul says, every evil word corrupts good manners, but when it has the melody with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly and enters within; as wine is poured into the cask with a funnel, so venom and corruption are distilled to the very depths of the heart by melody. Now what is there to do? It is to have songs not merely honest but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to God and praise Him, and to meditate upon His works in order to love, fear, honor, and glorify Him.[9]

Why did Calvin want “songs not merely honest but also holy?” One reason is that the songs would be suitable for congregational singing in corporate worship.

Voices and Instruments

Calvin and fellow Reformer William Farel (1489–1565) ministered in Geneva from 1536–1538, but were then exiled. When the city council invited them back in 1541, the two made the introduction of congregational singing in corporate worship a condition of their return. That this was a dramatic change from prevailing Catholic practice is not surprising. Calvin and the other Genevan Reformers strongly opposed keeping any Roman Catholic elements in their worship services.

These elements included anything the Reformers thought to be Catholic holdovers from Judaism, notably the use of musical instruments. In a sermon on I Samuel 18 Calvin declared, “All that is needed is a simple and pure singing of the divine praises, coming from heart and mouth, and in the vulgar [vernacular] tongue. … Instrumental music was tolerated in the time of the law because the people were then in infancy.”[10]                                                                                              

In his commentary on Psalm 33:2, Calvin expands on this rationale, writing: “we may not indiscriminately consider as applicable to ourselves, everything which was formerly enjoined upon the Jews. I have no doubt that playing upon cymbals, touching the harp and the viol, and all that kind of music, which is so frequently mentioned in the Psalms, was a part of the education; that is to say, the puerile instruction of the law: I speak of the stated service of the temple.”

With the anti-Catholic fervor characteristic of his era, Calvin adds that the use of “musical instruments in celebrating the praises of God would be no more suitable than the burning of incense, the lighting up of lamps, and the restoration of the other shadows of the law. The Papists, therefore, have foolishly borrowed this, as well as many other things, from the Jews. Men who are fond of outward pomp may delight in that noise; but the simplicity which God recommends to us by the apostle is far more pleasing to Him.” The human voice, Calvin concludes, “assuredly excels all inanimate instruments of music.”[11]


Metrical Psalms                                                                                                                              

Not only did the Genevan reformers want to keep instruments out of their worship services, they were also concerned that the congregation not sing any texts not found in Scripture. One consequence of this latter concern was the production of Psalters, rhymed metrical translations of the Psalms.

Why focus on singing Psalms in corporate worship? In his Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva, presented to the Council of Ministers in January, 1537, Calvin answered: “The psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of His name.”[12]

While exiled from Geneva to Strasbourg, Calvin himself produced six metrical psalms in French for his congregation to sing. The first edition of what would become the Genevan Psalter was published in Strasbourg in 1539. It contained 22 metrical psalms. After Calvin returned to Geneva, new editions were published in 1542 and 1543.

The main author of the texts was Clement Marot (1496–1544), the most famous French poet of the 16th century. Before turning the psalms into verse, Marot studied Martin Bucer’s commentary on the Book of Psalms to make sure he understood the Hebrew text well enough to render it into French poetry.[13]

Many of the melodies were composed by Guillaume Franc (1500–1570), a music teacher and composer, who was hired by Geneva’s city council for this purpose. In corporate worship, these melodies were sung in unison and unaccompanied, although for devotional use at home, musical settings were made in four or more parts. Gradually, some of the simpler four-part settings were introduced into public worship.[14]

Marot left Geneva not long after the psalter was published. His task of turning the psalms into poetry with rhyme and meter was taken over by the theologian Theodore Beza, Calvin’s eventual successor in Geneva. Franc left Geneva at about the same time, the result of the city council’s refusal to raise his salary.[15] His role as composer went to Louis Bourgeois (1510–1559). Perhaps the most famous of ‘Bourgeois’ melodies is known as the “Old Hundredth,” a tune still widely used for the hymn “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.” In 1551 an expanded edition of the Genevan Psalter was published, containing 83 Psalms, many with new melodies by Bourgeois and new texts by Beza.[16]

The final version of the Genevan Psalter was published in Geneva in 1562, just two years before Calvin’s death. It contained all 150 psalms (using 125 different melodies), as well as settings of the Ten Commandments and the Song of Simeon. 

For Calvin, the singing of psalms and hymns was a form of prayer. Prayer was one of the three essential elements of corporate worship along with preaching and the sacraments. In the preface to the 1562 edition of the Genevan Psalter, Calvin wrote:

As for public prayers, there are two kinds. The ones with the word alone: the others with singing. And this is not something invented a little time ago. For from the first origin of the Church, this has been so, as appears from the histories. And even St. Paul speaks not only of praying by mouth: but also of singing. And in truth we know by experience that singing has great force and vigor to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal. Care must always be taken that the song be neither light nor frivolous; but that it have weight and majesty (as St. Augustine says), and also, there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.[17]

Risks to the Reformers’ Legacy                                                                 

Calvin’s restoration of congregational singing in Geneva, his insistence that the singing be done in the vernacular, and his distinction between music appropriate for Christian worship and music appropriate for entertainment in other venues are among his most overlooked legacies to the church today. His comments about singing Psalms in the presence of God lead to a final section of this essay, which touches very briefly on four current trends that seem to put at risk the Reformers’ recovery of congregational singing in corporate worship.

Before I discuss these trends, please understand what I am and am not saying: I am not saying that each of the four is equally evident in every congregation. I am saying that each is evident and that, taken together, they do put at risk, even if unwittingly, the Reformation’s legacy of congregational singing in corporate worship. In the context of this essay, the best I can do is to offer a broad outline of these trends, without giving any the detailed attention each deserves. Here are some of the trends putting the Reformers’ legacy at risk is:

1. Replacing simple tunes with ostentatious melismatic formulations

Yes, I could have said, “Replacing simple tunes with complex melodies.” But I have background and training in music and “ostentatious melismatic formulations” does roll off the tongue in a delightful way, does it ?

It likely does not come as news that many songs being sung in many churches today cannot be sung by many of those who have come to those churches hoping to participate in worship.

Don Chapman, himself a worship leader, wrote an article in a newsletter for worship leaders where he observed: “Many new worship songs only sound good when sung by professional singers, not average congregations. … Just look at the typical melody––it’s a syncopated frenzy, and probably way out of your congregation’s vocal range. How can the average person sing that? They can’t.”

He made this discovery while leading worship for a small group. “One chorus in particular,” Chapman wrote, “was a complete train wreck––no one could follow the melody … I hadn’t noticed during church with the band blaring, but the problem was quite obvious in this casual setting.”

To Chapman’s considerable credit, he not only noticed the problem but took steps to correct it. “From then on,” he wrote, “I tried to select songs that were reasonably simple to sing and within a normal vocal range.”[18]

Unfortunately, some in positions similar to Chapman’s have not yet discovered what he learned. They certainly have not followed his course of action. And in those churches, congregational singing in corporate worship is, understandably, declining. This first trend is made more problematic by a second:

2. Removing hymnals from places of worship

Martin Luther helped create the first Protestant hymnal. John Calvin spent a quarter century working with poets, theologians, and composers to publish versions of the psalms his congregations could sing. In full-throated rejection of this legacy, some church leaders today are proudly removing hymnals and psalters from the places where their congregations worship. This trend has several troubling implications.

First, even as congregations are being confronted by unsingable melodies they have never heard and may only hear once or twice again before new unsingable melodies takes their place, collections of songs that have been sung by congregations for generations, even centuries, are being consigned to the dustbin of history. Whatever the reasons given for this hymnal holocaust, and their name is legion, the inevitable result is a further decline in congregational singing.

A second troubling effect of this trend is that it actively discourages anyone, musically trained or not, from actually reading music. Most Christians I know who have ever opened a hymnal on a Sunday morning have not known how to read music. And yet, after years or even decades, of singing hymns in church, they have been able to follow along fairly well, even if the hymn was new to them. As a choir member in my home church, a man who had a wonderful tenor voice but could not read music, once told me: “I know that when the notes go up, I sing higher; when they go down I sing lower; and when they have things hanging on them, I sing faster.”

Not only does removing hymnals remove an incentive for Christians to, in Luther’s words, train our youth in music, it also renders music reading ability useless to those who have labored to acquire it, and who find that reading music helps them sing God’s praises.

Finally, a truth long known to previous generations of church leaders is that most Christians in most congregations learn most of their theology through singing hymns. Listening to sermons and participating in Sunday school classes are essential if we as Christians are, in Paul’s words, to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). But sermons and Sunday school lessons are not the only, or even the primary, ways in which we learn the Christian faith. And replacing hymns written by trained theologians and composers, hymns that have stood the test of time, with the recent efforts of well intentioned amateurs who know three guitar chords and how to make a PowerPoint slide seems ill-advised if not irresponsible.

3. Reducing music to amusement

I suspect that many worship leaders today, were they ever to become aware of it, would not simply disagree with but would treat with contempt John Calvin’s assertion that “there is a great difference between music which one makes to entertain men at table and in their houses, and the Psalms which are sung in the Church.” Today, Calvin’s distinction is not simply disappearing as a result of benign neglect, it is actively being dissolved by those who insist that unless the music in our churches mimics the music of our culture at the moment, the church itself will not survive.

The dissolution of this distinction is detailed in T. David Gordon’s wonderfully titled book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal. Pop culture, Gordon writes, “exists as the child of two parents: mass media and commercial forces.” Pop culture, he continues “must be accessible … The commercial forces that drive it cannot afford to lose audiences.” In a culture-bound effort to maintain market share, many contemporary congregations are turning away from the music Donald Grout described as having “educational and ethical power,” that is, music that requires an investment of intellectual energy, and replacing it with music that is merely entertaining, music meant as effortless amusement. Gordon notes that the verb muse means “to give careful attention to a matter” while a-muse “means just the opposite: ‘no-muse,’ or ‘no serious attention to be given.’”[19]

Gordon describes his book as an attempt to observe cultural changes that “have impoverished congregational praise. If, as most orthodox thinkers have said, worship is a dialog between God and his people, and if, as I argue both his primary means of addressing us (preaching) has declined and our primary means of addressing him (praise) has declined, then worship itself has declined profoundly.”[20] Gordon’s work suggests that the first three trends I have identified coalesce in the fourth:

4. Returning to medieval Catholic worship

At the outset of the Protestant Reformation, “priests chanted in Latin, and choirs of professional singers predominantly sang polyphonic choral music in Latin; there was neither congregational song nor any church music in the common tongue.”[21] But as the Reformation spread: “The church was no longer composed of priests and monks; it was now the congregation of believers. All were to take part in worship.… From Luther’s time, the people sang … hymns were multiplied; they spread rapidly among the people, and powerfully contributed to rouse it from sleep.”[22]

Sadly, in at least some of our churches today, a different mathematical process is at work. Hymns are being subtracted––a verse (or two or three) here, an entire hymnal there. In at least some of these congregations, prospective worshipers are being lulled back to sleep by music rooted in an entertainment culture, music designed to amuse, music that announces, “no serious attention to be given here.” Relax. Enjoy. Leave the driving to us. As in medieval Catholicism, the people in the pews (or in the plushly padded theater style seats) are deprived of meaningful participation in the dialogue of Christian worship.

And, as in medieval Catholicism, while the congregation watches, the priests chant and the professional choirs sing. Of course, in the place of priests ordained in apostolic succession, today we have worship leaders who can trace their own authoritative ecclesiastical genealogies. Today, the language is not Latin, but neither is it accessible to the people. Today, polyphonic motets have given way to licks on electric guitars, but many congregations are not doing much more singing today than was being done in 1517. Indeed, the Reformers’ legacy is at risk.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That observation, by George Santayana (1863–1952), is widely, albeit variously, quoted. Most of the variations, I suspect, come from those who cannot remember what Santayana actually said. The statement comes in the first of his five-volume work The Life of Reason or The Phases of Human Progress, where he also said, “Fanaticism consists in redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.”[23]

Santayana’s dictum has been widely discussed. At a minimum he seems to be suggesting that people­­––in a church or in a culture––are not able to make progress unless they know their history and heritage. In more clichéd terms: It is hard to know where you are going if you do not know where you have been; if you do not know what you are aiming at, you will hit it every time.

Luther, Calvin, and other Magisterial Reformers have left today’s Christians many wonderful legacies: Psalms paraphrased to incorporate rhyme and meter; hymns and chorales in the language of the people; a recognition of the educational and ethical power of music; and church leaders committed to congregational singing in corpo-rate worship. Keeping the Reformers’ contributions in view may help us see our own way forward.


The Reverend Robert P. Mills is the Director of Music at Northminster Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Madison Heights, Virginia.

[1] Paul S. Jones, “Calvin and Church Music,” Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010), 220.

[2] Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music, 3rd ed., (New York: Norton, 1980), 251.

[3] Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century II, tr. David D. Scott (Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1846) 335. (Emphasis added).

[4] Grout, A History of Western Music, 252.

[5] Ernest Edwin Ryden, The Story of Our Hymns (Rock Island, IL: Augusta Book Concern, 1930), 47.

[6] Leonard Woolsey Bacon and Nathan H. Allen, eds.,  Dr. Martin Luther’s Deutsche Geistliche Lieder. The Hymns of Martin Luther set to their original Melodies with an English version, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1884), xxi.


[8] Plato, Republic, 4:424bc.

[9] Cited in Jones, “Calvin and Church Music,” 225.

[10] Cited in Jones, “Calvin and Church Music,” 239.


[12] Charles Garside, Jr., “The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music: 1536–1543,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 69/4, 1979 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1979), 10.

[13] Jones, “Calvin and Church Music,” 222.

[14] Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music, 3rd ed., (New York: Norton, 1980), 256.


[16] A.J. de Visser “The Genevan Psalter–450 years” in Clarion, 61 (2012), 332–334.



[19] T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 89–91.

[20] Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns, 17.

[21] Jones, “Calvin and Church Music,” 220.

[22] Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century II, 335. (Emphasis added).

[23] George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense (orig. 1905),


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