Living gifts must be cultivated and nourished. Our congregational practice of four-part, a cappella harmony did not simply appear by magic. Considering a few historical milestones can perhaps illumine the musical path that leads to where we are today.
In 1524 the Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli made a radical decision for his time: he threw out all the statues in the Grossmünster church, replaced the stained glass windows, removed the organ, and banned congregational singing. His student, Conrad Grebel, also argued against congregational singing in public worship, though he allowed that if people insisted on singing in the worship service, they should sing only in unison.
In the ensuing months and years, Grebel and others became leaders of a group known as the Anabaptists. Persecuted and imprisoned, converts to this new way became known for their martyr ballads which they composed and sang as they were led away to be executed. Singing became integral to their personal spiritual lives and families. Writing a song became an important way to bear testimony to God’s faithfulness and to demonstrate their hope for life beyond a fiery death.
These songs became part of a hymnal known as the Ausbund, meaning epitome, or paragon. This title captured the nature of the songs written by faithful believers who had made the ultimate sacrifice. Today the Ausbund is the oldest hymnal still in continuous use, having existed over 400 years.
The themes of commitment and sacrifice in the Ausbund are still deeply rooted in Anabaptist communities. By the 19th century, however, many Anabaptists had made their way to America, seeking religious freedom. Many of them eventually dropped the German language and began singing the English-language hymns and songs of their Protestant neighbors—songs that you and I continue to sing today. Influenced by the singing schools of Joseph Funk and others, they also became proficient in singing four-part harmony. Their a cappella singing and strong community ties developed a beautiful tradition of four-part harmony that is passed on to each generation today.
Following these developments, we can observe that the movements of history were fluid. Each generation was attempting to respond to the dynamics and developments of their time and strengthen something important. We too must respond to currents and influences that are no less consequential in our time.
Just as previous generations brought much-needed reinforcement and strength to the congregational singing of their time, we too need to give attention to our singing. We need fresh songs and hymns that express a rich and authentic faith. We need old songs that connect us to our history. Musical skills must be taught. Leaders need to be equipped and trained to plan and lead meaningful singing times. These are ways we can cultivate and nourish the living gifts we have received.