WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

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

Singing certain hymns merges us together with a long line of Christians who have sung these hymns before us. Puer natus in Bethlehem is one such hymn.

In addition to being the word for ministers proceeding into the sanctuary in ceremonial fashion, a “processional” is also the name for a book, in which were contained songs that were chanted during these church processions. The text Puer natus in Bethlehem first appeared in a Benedictine processional in the early 14th century. When the text was later standardized, the first Latin stanza read:

Puer natus in Bethlehem, Bethlehem
unde gaudet Jerusalem, Alleluia, alleluia.

A boy is born in Bethlehem (echo: Bethlehem),
wherefore Jerusalem rejoices: Alleluia, alleluia.

In 1439, Heinrich von Laufenberg translated the Latin verses into German:

Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem
Des freuet sich Jerusalem, Alleluja.

A tune of the same name (PUER NATUS IN BETHLEHEM) was associated with the text since the 14th century. By the early 17th century, the tune had all but become the same as it appears today.

The last hymnal for which Martin Luther authored prefatory remarks and what he would have regarded as his own hymnal for personal use was the 1545 edition of Geistliche Lieder, published in Leipzig by Valentin Babst (later known as the “Babst hymnal”). It was in this hymnal that the ten stanzas of Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem settled into what would be the authorized German version of the text.

Sixty years later, in the first decade of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius’ nine-volume work Musae Sioniae included 1,200 chorale settings, some with elaborate eight or twelve voice arrangements. One of the four-part chorale settings was the setting for Puer Natus in Bethlehem, a setting which still finds use today.

Since this hymn text also had verses that made reference to the Wise Men and their gifts, Johann Sebastian Bach used the text and tune early in the 18th century for his church Cantata #65. He composed this cantata and it was first performed on the Festival of the Epiphany of our Lord, January 6, 1724. 179 years after the hymn was published in the Babst hymnal in Leipizig, in that same city, the wondrous tones of a Bach cantata raised up that same song once again, proclaiming the message of how Wisemen from the East came to worship the boy who was born in Bethlehem.

The German text of this hymn was first translated into English by Hamilton Montgomerie MacGill. MacGill was educated and served as a minister in Glasgow, Scotland. He was a member of the Hymnal Committee of the United Presbyterian Church, contributing to the Presbyterian Hymnal of 1876.

God-willing, three short years from now, a newly published hymnal will be in the hands of WELS Christians scattered throughout this country and beyond. In the Christmas section of that new hymnal will appear a text that has made its way from a 14th century Latin processional to a 16th century German hymnal to a 17th century book of chorales to an 18th century church cantata to a 19th century Scottish hymnal to a 21st century English hymn (public domain translation by Chris Neuendorf, alt.) published by a small Lutheran church body based in Wisconsin, USA. The music of that hymn was set in SATB chorale form in the early 17th century by a truly Lutheran musician and choir director. Space permitting, the Epiphany section of the new hymnal will additionally include an Epiphany version of the hymn, allowing worshipers to echo the harmonies of Praetorius from his 1607 book of chorales, and to re-echo the harmonies of Bach from that Epiphany celebration in 1724 (Bach BWV 65, movement 2 [chorale] here from 3:35 to 4:17). I will be looking forward to a lead sheet version of the hymn that will allow for piano/guitar ensemble performance, sung at a lively pace.

And the best thing about standing in this long line of Christians who have made use of this one, particular hymn? We will be singing of Jesus, who became flesh to become our sin, that we again like him might be, set free from sin to serve and honor our God.

1 A child is born in Bethlehem, Bethlehem,
the joy of all Jerusalem. Alleluia, Alleluia!

5 Our feeble flesh and his the same, his the same,
our sinless brother he became, Alleluia, Alleluia!

6 from all our sin to set us free, set us free,
that we again like him might be. Alleluia, Alleluia!

7 Rejoicing in the holy birth, holy birth,
we praise our God who came to earth. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Peace in Jesus to you and yours this Christmas season!

Michael D. Schultz, director
WELS Hymnal Project

Our Lord Jesus had the utmost compassion on those with sensory impairments. He had the power to heal them and often did just that. We, on the other hand, are not granted such power. Nevertheless, following the example of Jesus, Christians are the kind of people who care for the physical needs of those often overlooked — including the needs of those with various sensory impairments.

The Technology Committee has been overseeing the overall design of the hymnal and its related digital products. We are working to ensure that the visual look and layout of our work is as consistent as possible across the various media that the new hymnal project will use — from print to screen. We are also working with the needs of the visually impaired in mind.

The previous approach to assisting those with visual impairment was to produce a so-called “Large Print Edition” of the hymnal. This text-based edition comes as a set of loose-leaf papers punched for use in a three-ring binder. Congregations can prepare a binder of materials each week for those who needed them. This is an effective approach for increasing the text size of the hymns for those who will benefit from the larger type.
But today there are new approaches available to us. The Technology Committee has consulted with the WELS Commission on Special Ministries and the consensus has been that today’s ebooks offer the best all-around system for our brothers and sisters with visual impairment. The Technology Committee has since built prototypes of hymnal ebooks to test their viability on a variety of platforms. We like what we have learned.

The flexibility offered to the visually impaired is welcomed. A text-based hymnal using ebook technology will allow users to increase the text size of the book to their specific liking. Those that need only a little boost in text size could bump the size up a notch or two, while those who benefit from a dramatic increase in size are free to change their settings appropriately. Since a large-print hymnal does not — by design — try to exactly replicate the layout and musical engraving of the standard pew edition, the text reflows automatically to fill the screen in a visually useful way.

Electronic books also take advantage of the high-resolution screens on today’s Kindles and iPads. Text can look as crisp on the small screen as it does in print. Text layout algorithms on the most common ebook platforms have improved to the point that they handle even very large text quite well.

Furthermore, specific platforms like Apple’s iOS have incredibly powerful accessibility features that allow even those who are completely blind to navigate the iBooks interface and have the text read aloud to them. While this approach may not always be suitable in a standard worship setting, a well-built hymnal ebook will be fully accessible for personal use by someone with total loss of vision.

Unfortunately, there is no single, ideal solution to creating a hymnal for the visually impaired, but thankfully the tools at our disposal today go quite far in serving the needs of as many people as possible. We know that one day our glorified bodies will be free from every malady and shortcoming, but for now, we can live in the light of that hope by offering our visually impaired brothers and sisters a hymnal designed for accessibility.

“In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly” (Psalm 5:3).

“Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress, and he hears my voice” (Psalm 55:17)

“It is good to praise the LORD and make music to your name, O Most High, proclaiming your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night” (Psalm 92:1,2).

“Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws” (Psalm 119:164).

What’s a good time of day to praise the Lord, to remember his faithfulness, to call on him in prayer? As the psalm verses above remind us, any time is a fitting time! For many centuries, Christians have set aside certain times during the morning, noon, and night to gather for prayer, song, and Scripture. These brief services came to be known as the Daily Office. (“Office” is from the Latin officium, which here refers to a service.) Some services were very short, while others lasted a little longer. Over time, certain psalms, hymns, and canticles got connected to certain times of day. But each typically included, to one degree or another, the reading of Scripture, psalmody, prayer, and hymnody.

The new hymnal will include services of the Daily Office. Two of these services are familiar, since versions of them appear in Christian Worship and The Lutheran Hymnal. For centuries Lutherans have, in various forms, prayed Matins (Morning Praise) and Vespers (Evening Prayer). Martin Luther himself advocated observing these times of prayer and praise in the morning and evening, and Lutherans have taken his advice. In addition, in recent years many have become fond of the service of Compline (KAHM-plin), or Prayer at the Close of Day. Compline’s calm tone and times for reflection help to quiet minds and hearts as the night draws near.

The print edition of the hymnal will include musical settings of Matins, Vespers, and, new to this hymnal, a musical setting of Compline. The current plan is to offer several additional musical settings of these services in digital resources. Some of these, like Marty Haugen’s version of Morning Praise and his Holden Evening Prayer, have found a home in many WELS congregations already.

The Daily Office will give the shape also to the devotions in the hymnal. Whatever the time of day, both individuals and groups will be able to find short, text-only forms to guide them during a little time with their Lord. An individual might use one of these devotions early in the morning during their Bible reading time. A Christian school might make use of one for a classroom devotion as the afternoon begins. A church council meeting could close with a five-minute, spoken version of Compline.

Whatever the time of day, may the Lord be praised and his love proclaimed!

“The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy” (Psalm 65:8).

The Rites Committee has been busy in 2018. We have completed work on several services, while we continue to make progress on others.
Here are some projects we’ve been working on during the last several months:

Fine Tuning Settings of The Service
The main Communion service will have three printed musical settings in the print edition of the hymnal. We have been refining some elements within each of these settings. For instance, we have worked on the Gospel Acclamation (known as the Verse of the Day in Christian Worship). We considered several different approaches, decided on a standard format for the print edition, and lined up music for each of the three settings of The Service.

Daily Devotions
The new hymnal will include several devotions appropriate for various times of day. These devotions will be useful for individuals, families, classrooms, meetings, and other groups. More about the format of these devotions in the next blog post.

Personal Prayers
An expanded set of Personal Prayers is currently under review. Some newly composed prayers take their place among some classic prayers to form a valuable prayer resource for personal devotions and other occasions.

Christian Wedding
We have completed a revision of the wedding rite. Our aim is to confess clearly the Scriptural basis for marriage, especially in light of societal confusion about this gift of God, and to do so with language that is both understandable and dignified.

Christian Funeral
We have also revised the Christian Funeral service, retaining Christian Worship’s emphasis on our God’s promises, rooted in the crucified and risen Savior, the Resurrection and the Life. Some new additions to the service further shine the spotlight on our Savior’s gifts of righteousness and eternal life.

Brief Service of Word and Prayer
We are proposing to the Executive Committee the inclusion of a new service, a brief Service of Word and Prayer. This service is designed for occasions such as midweek Lenten and Advent services, regular midweek services when Communion is not celebrated, and chapel services.

Rites for Confession and Absolution
For occasions when Christians seek the comfort of God’s absolution spoken privately and individually, we have revised the rite for Individual Confession and Absolution. For times when groups of Christians want to focus on God’s forgiveness, our plan is to include a rite for Corporate Confession and Absolution in the new hymnal.

Many other Rites Committee projects are in the works. We are excited to see many rites taking shape, anticipating how the Spirit may use them as humble vehicles for his powerful Word.

The Technology Committee of the WELS Hymnal Project continues to pursue its original objectives for the project, namely to support and enhance the utility and effectiveness of the new hymnal through well-designed resources. The Technology Committee has divided that work into three main areas: 1) a service builder application for pastors and worship planners, 2) a resource for musicians and directors, and 3) a mobile application for laypeople.

The Technology Committee is working with software developers to accomplish the first two objectives. While the full scope of these products is still under development, the Technology Committee has pursued a set of feature requirements that we expect will successfully meet the needs of a large number of pastors, worship planners, musicians, and choir directors.

The committee’s focus on the preparatory work for a service builder and musicians’ resource has necessarily kept us from devoting time and resources from development of the mobile application for laypeople. However, such a product is still on the agenda for the committee. Furthermore, such a product will be better served with a development effort that begins closer to the release date of the hymnal.

Another project of the Technology Committee has been to oversee the visual design of the new hymnal. While it may seem unusual for this committee to oversee such work, the rationale is sound: a single committee overseeing the design work will ensure that the design of the entire product line be consistent and functional across both print and digital formats.

Our focus between now and the end of the year is on finalizing the business model for the first two software products as well as the design templates for all the major products in the future set of resources.