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Geistliche Gesangbuch, geistreiche Gesangbuch: The development of confessional unity in the evangelical hymnbook, 1524–1587

Christine Anne Hancock Dempsey, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This study examines the role of the hymnbook in the development of the Lutheran church from the publication of the first hymnal in 1524 to the creation of the first cantional style hymnbook in 1587. When Luther introduced the Formula Missae, he called for poets to compose German hymns, which led to the creation of approximately 4000 such hymns. Even though Luther initiated the hymn writing process, the printer-publishers believed a book of hymns could be a viable medium for publication. Initial success of their publications led to the creation of a genre that would produce approximately 500 different hymnbooks between 1524 and 1587. With the unfolding of the Reformation, the hymnbook continued to evolve; this directly paralleled the historical developments of the era. First, reformers created the traditional hymnbooks to broadcast the evangelical message that helped to bring about the Reformation. Second, hymnbook compilers developed books that emphasized lay learning. This corresponded with Luther's new approach to education, which he introduced after receiving the first visitation reports in 1527. These books encouraged the laity to learn Luther's theology and the tenets of Christianity. Third, the hymnbooks came to symbolize Lutheran solidarity during the period of confessionalization by promoting state and doctrinal unity. Finally, this study examines the wealth of polemical hymns left out of sixteenth-century hymnbooks. These hymns attacked a wide range of topics under the guise of religion and utilized song for their delivery. When printers and theologians omitted these songs from the hymnbooks, they sent a clear message about music, which they believed to be important to the salvation of souls and the propagation of the church. On a broader scale, this study demonstrates the importance of hymns as a historical source at the time of the Reformation. Hymns were not cultural by-products of history, but played an active part in the spread, education and adoption of the Lutheran church.

Subject Area

History|Religious congregations|Music education

Recommended Citation

Dempsey, Christine Anne Hancock, "Geistliche Gesangbuch, geistreiche Gesangbuch: The development of confessional unity in the evangelical hymnbook, 1524–1587" (2003). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI3092536.