WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

In the early days of this hymnal project website, it was noted that one of the leading purposes of writing blog articles is to “take people along for the ride,” to share with readers a healthy cross-section of all the different aspects of our work. We also knew that one of our early work items would be reviewing all the existing materials in our hymnal and its supplement. By early 2015 we will have reviewed all of the lectionary selections, psalms, hymns, and rites across all of the published Christian Worship editions, including Christian Worship: Occasional Services. The first group to dive into this review has been the executive committee, since the other subcommittees will be bringing to the executive committee batches of recommendations and resolutions regarding all of the review items, complete with detailed notes, transcribed committee discussions, and rationale statements for all their recommendations.

Reviewing hymns has been slow going for me. It’s not uncommon for me to spend more than an hour reviewing a single hymn, sometimes much more than that. I have about a hundred done, and I plan to go back through them all once more (especially the earliest reviews), now that I have landed on a review process which seems to work. Front and center is an open copy of Christian Worship. When it’s time to start reviewing the next hymn, I’ll typically open two new review items in the online database where all our reviews reside — one review for the text and another for the music. The other open volume which I consult for every hymn is Dr. C.T. Aufdemberge’s Christian Worship: Handbook. And then the chase is on.

Regarding the text, the non-exhaustive list of questions includes:

  • How many original stanzas were there and in what language were they?
  • Are there any original dropped stanzas we should think about bringing back in?
  • Are there any currently included stanzas we should think about dropping?
  • Are there enough unused original stanzas that we might consider carving out two separate hymns from the complete number of stanzas?
  • If the hymn is a translation into English, who translated it and when?
  • How many translations are there?
  • Would we want to think about retranslating a text?
  • Should we definitely not retranslate a text because of its long-standing use or because of how many may have already memorized it as it is?
  • If the text is public domain, how has it been altered?
  • Are there phrases, rhymes, or terms that really need to be fixed?
  • Was it wise to go from “thee” to “you” or should we return to “thee” with a particular text (case by case basis)?
  • What are the differences (down to the shortest single words or even punctuation) in how the text appears in the many different hymnals in which it has been published?
  • Is the language intelligible?
  • Is the poetry rich or weak?
  • Does the text contribute something significant to the body of hymns we have, or do the same themes already appear in five similar hymns?

There is an almost inexhaustible array of hard copy and online resources in which can be explored these sample questions and many more. And the questions above are really only the mechanical questions. I haven’t even delved into the more important matters of the message of the text, its law/gospel clarity, its gospel content, its doctrinal integrity - all of which are up for review.

Then there’s the music.

  • Are the key signature and range too high or too low?
  • If it was new to our church body in Christian Worship, has the tune caught on or do people still struggle with it?
  • Is it time to let this tune go or are there good arguments for keeping it?
  • Is the musical setting (the harmony parts) too challenging?
  • Which of a number of different settings is the best one for this hymn?
  • Are there descants or instrumental parts for the hymn or would we need to or should we think about producing them?
  • Do the words/syllables of the text match up well with the beat or pulse (or syncopation or rhythm) of the music?
  • How and by whom has this tune been used in the history of the church?
  • Do we have the best tune with this text?
  • In the hymnals of other Lutheran and Christian church bodies, which tunes and settings appear with this text?
  • Do the melody line and rhythm which we have in our hymnal line up with how the melody line and rhythm appear in a broad cross section of the larger church throughout the world?
  • Which musical genres are under-represented or over-represented in our current hymnody, and where does this tune fit into that question?

And then we would have to say “ditto” as far as the comment made above regarding texts — online resources covering only the existing music of our hymns are practically endless, to say nothing of the hundreds of hymns we’ll be reviewing which would be either new since our last major publication or new to us as a church body. And these musical questions are again mostly only the mechanical ones. Not treated in the sampling of questions above are the more important matters, such as: Does the tune highlight and emphasize the text it is carrying or is the music itself the focus or actually a distraction to the text? Whatever its style or genre, does the tune have the dignity and decorum we would want it to have, realizing that it will be utilized in God’s house? How well has the tune worn or will it wear with continued and repeated use in our worship services?

Considering these questions and many more, along with the research which such considerations trigger, has made my own review of hymns slow going. I thought I might possibly gain some ground when I came to the musical review of CW 92, “Brightest and Best.” In the handful of hard copy hymnals I checked, the key signature was regularly G major, and there wasn’t much if any variation to the harmony parts. Then I glanced down to my left, toward the open copy of the LC-MS’s Lutheran Service Book, and thought to myself, “What’s that?” The melody line in the second last measure sure looked strange - its first three notes going straight up the scale from D to E to F. All my forty-plus years of singing that hymn in TLH and CW, I have sung that phrase D to G to F. So much for a quick musical review of CW 92. I quickly found out that both the current and previous Lutheran hymnals of the Missouri Synod and the ELCA have that phrase going straight up the scale from D to E to F. The website hymnary.org revealed that right around 20 hymnals have it that way, too — hymnals dating back to 1899 (not to mention a host of 19th century hymnals which have this text set to six other tunes, composed or arranged by the likes of Samuel Wesley, John B. Dykes, J. S. Bach and Johann C. W. A. Mozart). Without having burned too many research hours, it appears that The Lutheran Hymnal, Christian Worship, and Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS) are possibly the only hymnals that have that last line the way I have always sung it.

When it comes to things that call for one’s attention in a hymn review, sometimes it’s just one note. Will we make that tiny melodic change in “Brightest and Best” and align the next printing of that hymn with what is common in the vast majority of hymnals that have published it? I honestly don’t know (yet). If we were to do so, I imagine I might sing it incorrectly the first few times, as I probably did when a similar three note change (2X) was made in the case of CW 234, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” to align the melody of that hymn with its much more common and broader use in Christian churches and hymnals. All I can say at this point is that, along with everything else, it will be up for review.

And I can assure you that our thinking with every conceivable question concerning the review of hymns has one underlying principle which is guiding not only our review of hymns but all that we are doing across all our committees: How will every one of our decisions serve for the glory of God and the edification of all those who will, God-willing, make use of the next WELS hymnal? Brothers and sisters, we benefit from your prayers and your involvement as we seek to serve both you and our Savior. Thank you for your interest and your prayers.

One of the goals for the WELS Hymnal Project’s September 2013 executive committee meeting was to nominate members for each of the project’s seven subcommittees (hymnody, psalmody, rites, scripture, literature, technology, and communications).

During the ensuing months, the chairmen of those committees have been extending invitations to the nominated individuals. We are pleased to announce that, in advance of our second executive committee meeting (February 26,27, 2014), each of the seven subcommittees has been filled.

Work has already begun to get all of the subcommittee members familiar with the tools and resources the members of the project will be using to complete their work. Several subcommittees have been further divided into working groups and have begun to tackle the work that is in front of them. One of the goals for the upcoming executive committee meeting will be to develop an overall timeline for the completion of the various aspects of this project.

We are thankful both to the Lord of the Church who continues to pour out great and diverse gifts on our church body and to these individuals for their willingness to serve. Please continue to keep the members of the WELS Hymnal Project in your prayers.

A list of the members of each of the seven subcommittees can be found on the project website.

There is more than one way to slice up the pie that is the Christian church year, our annual calendar that serves to focus God’s people on Christ’s saving work and word.

The simplest way to slice it would be to view the church year as two equal parts: one that focuses on the life of Christ (also known as the festival half of the year), the other that focuses on the teachings of Christ (the non-festival half). On the other end of the spectrum, the church year can be viewed as 60+ specific Sundays and festivals (plus any number of minor festivals and commemorations), each of which highlights a unique facet of Christ’s work and teaching. In between, the church year consists of six seasons (seven with End Time) with unique sights, sounds, and Scriptural themes that take us from one Advent to the next.

One of the other ways in which the church year can be organized is around the three great festivals that punctuate the Christian year: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. It’s often been said that those three festivals highlight the saving work of our Triune God. Christmas celebrates the love of the God the Father in sending his Son. Easter celebrates the saving work of God the Son. Pentecost celebrates the work of God the Spirit, who breathes life into the Church on earth.

When organized in this way, the church year is viewed from the perspective of three periods of time. The time of Christmas includes the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. The time of Easter includes the seasons of Lent and Easter along with Holy Week. The time of the Church includes the day of Pentecost and all of the Sundays that come after it. This is the way the church year is organized in Christian Worship on pages 157-159 and explained in Christian Worship: Manual on pages 369-384.

Regardless of how you slice it, the Christian church year has and will continue to serve as an invaluable tool for uniting Christ’s church on earth around the gospel as it gathers for worship at the start of each week.

As we continue on that journey together and with Christians all over the world, the next period of time that looms on the horizon is the time of Easter. As that time approaches, we share this resource as one way to help God’s people see the connection and progression from Ash Wednesday through Ascension as we remember Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

God’s blessings as you continue your annual remembrance of what our Savior has done!

This post was also published by the Institute for Worship and Outreach and included accompanying resources. Please visit the website of the Institute for Worship and Outreach for copies of those resources.

One of the questions facing the psalmody committee is whether to publish the entire psalter. This would include publishing every verse from all 150 psalms.

Some of the input we have already received encourages us to do just that, or at least to publish more verses from selected psalms.

In his article, Necessary Songs: The Case for Singing the Entire Psalter, Martin Tel makes a nice case for expanding what we do in worship with the Psalms.

One of his main points, that some of the expressions in the psalms do not match the modern American sensibility, is probably a good reason to take his advice. Any time we can point out the difference between the reality of God and modern American sensibilities, people can grow in grace and truth.

The real questions are practical.

Some congregations struggle with the psalms presently printed in Christian Worship. If we expand the number of words that a congregation might speak or sing, how can we put the psalms into a format that makes them accessible to those kinds of congregations? Perhaps appropriate background music for the oral reading of an entire psalm would help them. Perhaps they would sing a hymn based on a psalm, a metrical paraphrase, instead.

Other congregations have used the psalms presently printed in Christian Worship so often that they are getting old. They are appreciating the psalms in Christian Worship: Supplement, but they are looking for more. Perhaps having the text of an entire psalm in a fresh setting would help them.

Near the end of his article, Tel makes the case that abridged psalms might still be very useful in some locations. How much to abridge them is one question. Whether and how to use refrains, both old and new, is another question. But we have become accustomed, sometimes even fondly, to the abridged psalms with refrains in Christian Worship, and they seem to have a good place in WELS worship practices.

What do you think? Publish all the psalms or just selected ones? Publish all the verses or just selected ones?

There is good reason to put a lot of effort into our consideration of psalms in the new hymnal. As Martin Luther wrote, the psalms are words of prophecy, instruction, comfort, prayer, and thanks. He prayed them daily and published how he found Christ in each one.

Do we find Christ in the psalms? That is enough to make them valuable. And as the hymnal of the Scripture, the psalms, whether whole or abridged, will be a valuable part of our synod’s new hymnal.

I’d like to point out that three new resources were posted to the WELS Hymnal Project website recently.

The first is a lengthy work entitled, “Studies in Lutheran Chorales,” by Hilton C. Oswald. From the resource description:

Between the years 1961 and 1997 a series of essays by Hilton Oswald appeared in The Lutheran School Bulletin, the predecessor to The Lutheran Educator. The collection of 47 essays is unique for its contribution in the English language to the understanding of German Lutheran hymns. On the pages of this collection of essays Oswald urges Lutherans to understand and appreciate the treasure of German Lutheran hymnody that we have inherited. The WELS Hymnal Project presents this document, newly formatted and digitized, for useful study in WELS and beyond.

The second is the inaugural issue of Viva Vox, a newsletter published in 1955 by Ralph Gehrke and Kurt Eggert. From the resource description:

In the mid 1950’s Lutheran colleagues Rev. Kurt Eggert and Professor Ralph Gehrke teamed up to circulate a worship newsletter entitled Viva Vox (the Living Voice [of the Gospel]). With Rev. Eggert having served as the project director for Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, the reproduction of these editions is intended only to illustrate how many of the same worship issues of half a century ago are still facing us today as we humbly take on the daunting task and responsibility of working on our next worship book and its accompanying resources. We will add editions as time allows, and we plan to write a few blog articles referencing topics covered in Viva Vox.

The third is a Scripture index of Christian Worship: Supplement. From the resource description:

An extensive scripture index for the hymns of Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal is included in the final pages of Christian Worship: Handbook (Dr. C.T. Aufdemberge). A number of years ago a similar index was prepared for Christian Worship: Supplement and is now made available in the hopes that it will serve as a helpful resource for hymn selection in any number of settings.

We present these resources to you in the hopes that you find them useful and edifying.