Luther: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God


In this fourth post in the series on Luther’s musical legacy, we look at the Diet of Worms and Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.

A brief timeline of events will help give some perspective:

  • October 31, 1517 – Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.
  • June 1520 – Pope Leo X issues a Papal bull outlining 41 supposed errors in the theses and in Luther’s other writings.
  • January 23, 1521 – Emperor Charles V opened the Imperial Diet in Worms, Germany (The Diet was the legislative body of the Holy Roman Empire.)
  • April 16, 1521 – Luther arrives in Worms (I don’t know when he was summoned.)

Luther at the Diet of Worms

After the summons, Luther’s protector, Prince Frederick III, Elector of Saxony arranged for safe passage for Luther to and from the meeting. This guarantee was necessary because Jan Hus was tried and wrongly executed as a heretic in 1415 despite a promise of safe conduct.

On April 17th, Luther was told he should speak only in answer to direct questions from the presiding officer. He was asked if the 25 books on display were his and if he was ready to recant them as heresies. Luther requested more time to consider his answer and was given 24 hours.

On April 18, 6:00 P.M., he gave his now-famous answer:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reason (for I trust neither pope nor council alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have cited, for my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since to act against one’s conscience is neither safe nor right. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand, may God help me.

Luther didn’t wait around for the verdict, but left soon after. Prince Frederick knew Luther was not really safe and seized him on his way home and hid him in Wartburg Castle. During his time in hiding, Luther completed the first German translation of the New Testament. Luther returned to Wittenberg in March of 1522.

Two contexts are worth noting…

First, Martin Luther’s brave testimony to God and His Word before the ruling body of the Holy Roman Empire spoke to the heart and mind of George, Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, one of the princes. He later became a follower of Christ through correspondence with Luther and in reading the German New Testament.

Secondly, the Edict of Worms against Luther was issued on 26 May 1521 by Emperor Charles V, stating:

For this reason we forbid anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor the said Martin Luther. On the contrary, we want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, as he deserves, to be brought personally before us, or to be securely guarded until those who have captured him inform us, whereupon we will order the appropriate manner of proceeding against the said Luther. Those who will help in his capture will be rewarded generously for their good work.

By the time Luther left the safety of Wartburg, the emperor was concerned with other matters and never did enforce the edict in Germany. Also, Luther had gained popular support from the German people and the protection of several German princes. However, the Edict was enforced against Luther’s most visible supporters in the Low Countries

Two monks, Johann Esch and Heinrich Voes, refused to recant and were burned at the stake in Brussels on July 1st, 1523. Luther’s first hymn, A New Song Shall Here Be Begun was composed in response to their martyrdom. (Dr. Steven Nichols refers to this piece as a ballad.)

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

According to Dr. Steven Nichols, “After writing that song, Luther looked at the liturgy of the church and decided that the church needed an overhaul of its music just as much as it needed an overhaul of its theology. So, he wrote a letter to George Spalatin, who was secretary to Frederick the Wise and also a fellow preacher in Wittenberg. Luther wrote, ‘Grace and peace. I am planning, according to the examples of the prophets and the ancient fathers, to create vernacular psalms, that is hymns, for the common folk so that the Word of God remain with the people also through singing. Therefore, we are looking everywhere for poets.’ Luther threw his effort into this hymn-writing project, and by 1524 the first hymnbook was produced. It had eight hymns, four of them by
Luther. By 1546, there were more than one hundred hymnals printed.”

Probably Luther’s most well-known hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, is based on Psalm 46, but the echoes of his life can also be heard in the lyrics. Luther lived with controversies and under the threat of death and in the knowledge of the martyrdom of those who followed his teachings from Scripture.

According to Dr. Steven Lawson, “Luther had translated and taught the Psalms, a book he deeply loved. This inspired collection of ancient worship songs was, in fact, the first book of Scripture that Luther has taught in the classroom. An exposition of selected penitential psalms was the subject of his first printed work.”

In researching for this post, I’m struck how God worked in Luther’s heart to give him a love (and ability) for music and a conviction that songs would anchor God’s truths in the hearts of His people.

Another interesting connection that turns up in research is the Wartburg castle is located in the town of Eisenach where Luther had attended school in his teens. Many years later, Johann Sebastian Bach was born and raised in Eisenach, attending the same school as Martin Luther did. However, this is getting ahead of ourselves. Learn more in the next, and last, post in the series on Luther’s Musical Legacy.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

For today’s video, I listened to versions of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God with large choirs and organ (or orchestra), even listening to the original German, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. I grew up with the majestic and powerful renditions, but I settled on this version by HeartSong. And isn’t this closer to the setting and to how people experienced the hymn at first? An intimate group of singers, perhaps accompanied by lute?

Lyrics of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (from Hymnary.org)

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper He, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth His name,
from age to age the same;
and He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still.

The posts in this series, celebrating Martin Luther’s Musical Legacy

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  I’m using the five Sundays of October 2017 to celebrate Luther’s five centuries of influence through music.

NOTES:

The painting of Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, is in the public domain and is available on Wikimedia Commons. I do not have a link to the photo because I believe that link is “bugged.”

Learn more about Luther's famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
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