You may have heard it said, or said it yourself, that Martin Luther used a drinking song for his iconic hymn “A Mighty Fortress.” Or maybe you’ve heard (or said) Luther’s apparent quip, “Why should the devil have all the good music?” Either of these pithy truisms have been employed by those hoping to justify the inclusion of popular music in the church’s worship, just as long as the words are at least somewhat spiritual. Rick Warren, for one, is a celebrity pastor that takes this position.
In light of Reformation Day today, I hope to put to rest these false notions that shame Luther’s good name, while leaning on Paul S. Jones’ book Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today (P&R, 2006). Luther never used bar songs for hymns and never said anything about the devil’s good music. First, to dispel the silly quotation: this has never been found in any of Luther’s writings or verified by any Luther scholars. That paragon of all that is good about Christian music, Larry Norman (a pioneer of the CCM-precursor Jesus Movement), popularized the statement in his song with the same title, “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” The statement has roots older than this 1970s Jesus Movement song, though, with something similar being attributed to William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army) as well as misattributed in some form or fashion to the likes of Isaac Watts, the Wesley brothers, and D.L. Moody.
On to EIN FESTE BURG, the tune for “A Mighty Fortress.” This tune is one of Luther’s own compositions that he wrote specifically for this hymn as well as for a versification of Psalm 46. He also wrote several other very good tunes, including tunes for Psalm 130, an Advent hymn, and a Resurrection Sunday hymn. He, along with many other composers (including Bach) would borrow from other forms, including Gregorian chants and folk music.
The closest Luther got to stealing a drinking song was the tune VON HIMMEL HOCH for his Advent hymn, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.” This was associated with an old German folk melody, but when Luther heard the tune sung in inns and dance halls, he was embarrassed and the tune was stricken from his hymn collections. Folk songs were traditionally sung in such places, but that does not make them tavern songs. Lastly, a standard Middle Age German musical form is the “bar form.” Perhaps when CCMers were playing the telephone game, “bar form” was misheard as “bar song.”
More important than merely debunking urban myths is the principle inherent when such statements are uttered. Pop music or heavy metal, for example, are not automatically sterilized and sanctified by merely pairing them with religious texts. As Ken Myers argues in his classic All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes (Crossway, 1989) and T. David Gordon more recently hammers home in Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (P&R, 2010), popular music has inherent characteristics that are ill-suited for corporate worship. Music is not ideologically or theologically neutral and thus not all musical genres should be used in worship. Since music is not neutral, personal taste does not trump objective standards. For more on this topic, I commend Jones’ chapter to you (on which this post heavily leaned): “Luther and Bar Song: The Truth Please!” in Singing and Making Music. The aforementioned All God’s Children and Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns are also well worth your time.
So on this Reformation Day, please do not take Luther’s name in vain by attributing to him what he never said, intended, or desired. And in the spirit of All Saints’ Day tomorrow (November 1), here’s a bonus video of the magisterial British hymn “For All the Saints.”