Reformation Sunday: Celebrating Five Centuries of Congregational Hymn Singing

(The author writes about this service: We used Reformation Sunday this year [2007] as an opportunity not only to remember our roots in the Protestant Reformation, but also to recognize the reemergence of congregational hymn singing. This allowed us to segue into a service to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Charles Wesley's birth. If that weren't enough, we also remembered the contributions of the Moravians who this year are celebrating 550 years of their founding. We owe the Moravians a great deal for introducing congregational hymn singing long before Luther, and their significant influences on John and Charles Wesley. Believe it or not, this service took exactly one hour -- not bad for a layman!)

PRELUDE - Three Moravian Hymn Tunes (Brass Ensemble)

Gaudeamus Pariter (Ave Virgo Virgine)
UMH 636

OPENING: Scripture -- Psalm 31:1-3

Response -- A mighty fortress is our God A bulwark never failing, UMH 764

Scripture: Psalm 46:1-3

Response -- A mighty fortress is our God A bulwark never failing, UMH 764

Scripture: Psalm 59:16-17

Response -- A mighty fortress is our God A bulwark never failing, UMH 764

PROCESSIONAL HYMN 110 -- A Mighty Fortress is our God


Today is Reformation Sunday, the day that Protestant denominations traditionally set aside to remember our common heritage. It commemorates the date in October 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenburg cathedral protesting the excesses of the Catholic church of his day.

One of the most important (and often overlooked) results of the Protestant Reformation was the reemergence of congregational hymn singing. For over 1000 years, the common people were prohibited from singing in church. Only the clergy and professional singers could do this. The music was always sung in Latin; never in the vernacular language of the people. The contributions of Martin Luther and his followers in producing new hymn tunes and texts cannot be overstated. The German chorale hymns revolutionized classical music and gave rise to later composers such as J. S. Bach.

But the Lutherans were not the first congregational hymn writers. That distinction belongs to the Moravians of Central Europe. In 2007 these followers of the martyred reformer John Hus celebrated 550 years of their founding in 1457. Moravians are credited with producing the first hymnal in 1501. The Moravians are a "mainstream" Protestant denomination in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Pennsylvanians are perhaps more familiar with the Moravians since they settled in the Lehigh valley and founded the cities of Bethlehem and Nazareth.

One might ask why we Methodists should be at all interested in the Moravians. Well, John and Charles Wesley were greatly influenced by the Moravians. It all started with their journey to the American colony of Georgia in 1735 as missionaries from the Church of England where they were both ordained ministers. This ministry was a dismal failure.

Wesley returned to England depressed and beaten. It was at this point that he turned to the Moravians. The Wesley brothers had encountered the Moravians three years earlier on their voyage to Georgia. At one point in the voyage a storm came up and broke the mast off the ship. While the English aboard all panicked, the Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. This experience led John Wesley to believe that the Moravians possessed an inner strength that he lacked. His Aldersgate experience of May 24, 1738, was at a Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street, London, in which he heard a reading of Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. He later wrote in his journal the now famous lines "I felt my heart strangely warmed."

Late in 1739 Wesley broke with the Moravians over some theological differences. But the Moravians had given both John and Charles Wesley a deep appreciation of hymns and congregational singing. John actually produced a hymnal for the Moravians by translating Moravian hymns from German into English. Charles Wesley, whose 300th birthday we celebrated in 2007, developed a friendship with Moravian hymn writers and began writing hymns of his own, eventually writing over 6000. His hymns are contained in 64 collections published during his lifetime. Charles Wesley wrote the words; others wrote the music, often many years after he had died in 1788. For example, Charles Wesley wrote the words to "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," but Felix Mendelssohn wrote the music, and he wasn’t born until 20 years after Wesley died.

So I now invite you to journey together through a "Season of Charles Wesley" as we sing one or two verses of his best known hymns and listen to the scriptural context which he may have had in mind when he wrote them. Please feel free to join in singing as we celebrate over 500 years of congregational hymns and the 300th birthday of Charles Wesley.

A Season of Charles Wesley
Celebrating the 300th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Wesley

Opening (Man Reader) -- In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (John Wesley's Journal)

"And can it be that I should gain," UMH 363 (Solo unaccompanied), 1 verse

Advent (Man Reader): Isaiah 40:3-5

"Come, thou long expected Jesus," UMH 196 (Choir), 1 verse

Christmas (Woman Reader): Luke 2:8-14

"Hark! the herald angels sing," UMH 240 (Congregation), 1 verse

Call to Discipleship (Man Reader): Mark 1:14-20

"A Charge to Keep I Have," UMH 413 (Congregation) 2 verses

A Ministry of Love (Woman Reader): I Corinthians 13

"Jesus, lover of my soul," UMH 479 (Choir a cappella), 1 verse

"Love divine, all loves excelling," UMH 384 (Congregation), 1 verse

Palm Sunday (Man reader): Mark 11:1-9

"Rejoice, the Lord is King," UMH 715 (Congregation), 2 verses

Eucharist (Woman Reader): Luke 22:14-20

"Come, sinners, to the gospel feast," UMH 616 (Choir), verses 1, 5

Passion (Man Reader): Mark 15:22-39

"O Love divine, what has thou done!" UMH 384 (Choir), verses 1, 3

Easter (Woman Reader): Mark 16:1-6

"Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!" UMH 302 (Congregation), 1 verse

Pentecost (Man Reader): Acts 2:1-4

"Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire," UMH 603 (Choir), verses 1, 4

Final Triumph (Man Reader): I Corinthians 15:51-55

"Blow ye the trumpet, blow!" UMH 379 (Congregation), 1 verse


OFFERTORY ANTHEM -- Solo 8:30: "I'll Praise My Maker While I've Breath"

Choir -- 11:00: "O For a Thousand Tongues" -- Van Denman Thompson

CLOSING HYMN -- "Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above," UMH 126 (a Moravian hymn)

POSTLUDE -- Variations on "Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott"

Copyright 2007, 2008, 2012W. Richard (Dick) Turner. Published by the Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Congregations may reprint this resource for local church use, provided the copyright of the author is acknowledged and this website is cited.

Categories: Musical Services, Other