words by: Elam Stoltzfus
— PART ONE —
It’s Sunday morning, your family and community arrive to worship and be together at church. You take your place on the church bench or pew. You open your songbook and join everyone else in the church in song. Singing together is foundational for our emotional expression, and we teach Christian doctrines in the form of worship through song. Today, we take it for granted that Sunday morning worship will include all of us lifting our voices together in song.
On the eve of the Reformation in the early 1500s, it was taboo to sing together as a group of worshippers, and the Catholic church did not provide or support congregational singing.
Even as the Reformation changed how Christians practiced their faith, some early Protestant groups limited singing in the church: Ulrich Zwingli, leader of the Reformation in Switzerland, prohibited music altogether, while John Calvin, a French theologian, limited singing to Psalms without musical instruments.
Martin Luther, however, encouraged congregational singing. Luther composed music and lyrics for the worship experience of the churches that believed in salvation, grace through a believer’s faith, and Jesus Christ as a Redeemer from sin. Even today, many sing songs written by Luther, a popular one being A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott”), which is also my all-time favorite hymn.
Singing was also important to the Swiss Anabaptists. In the early years, they had to meet in secret for fear of persecution. They met in forests, barns, and caves to sing together and to listen to teaching and preaching. Music was used to worship, encourage believers, and tell stories. The believer’s songs contain a rich desire to experience the Holiness of God’s presence in their lives, even as they suffered.
And how the early Anabaptists suffered! In the 1500s, hundreds were persecuted and martyred for their faith. Some Anabaptists took to writing songs, sharing their hearts amid many tribulations. The core of the Ausbund—the first fifty-one songs—was written by a group of Swiss Anabaptists who were imprisoned in a castle in Passau from 1535-1540. Many of these Anabaptists were later martyred for their beliefs. Their songs were collected together and printed in 1564, likely in Cologne. This was the first printing of the Ausbund. Today, only one known copy exists, and it is located at the Mennonite Historical Library in Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana. This first edition actually didn’t contain the word “Ausbund” in it; this 1564 hymnbook was titled Several Beautiful Christian Songs Which Were Written and Sung Through God’s Grace by the Swiss Brethren in the Passau Castle Prison (“Etliche schöne christliche Gesäng wie dieselbigen zu Passau von den Schweizer Brüdern in der Gefenknus im Schloss durch göttliche Gnade gedicht und gesungen warden. Ps. 139”).
The hymnbook was printed again nearly twenty years later, but with over twice as many songs. The 1583 printing contains 130 songs; today’s American printings of the Ausbund have 140 songs. This printing from nearly 500 years ago contains all the songs still printed today in America, minus ten added in later editions.
Ausbund means “paragon” or “virtue” in German, and the songs reflect early Anabaptists’ desire to be virtuous. Quite a few of the songs were written by Anabaptists who were martyred: Felix Mann (Hymn #6), Michael Sattler (Hymn #7), and Hans Hut (Hymn #8) all wrote songs included in the Ausbund. The songs mainly come from Anabaptists all over Europe, reflecting the shared experiences that many were dealing with: persecution by state and religious leaders who refused to accept their beliefs.
For example, one of the most well-loved songs of the Ausbund, the Song of Praise / “Lob Lied” (Hymn #131), was not written by Swiss Anabaptists in Passau, but rather a German Mennonite minister who later settled in the Netherlands; his name was Leenaerdt Clock. This hymn is the second song sung at every Amish worship service.
Here are the lyrics to the first verse of this hymn:
O God Father, we praise You
And Your goodness exalt,
Which You, O Lord, so graciously
Have manifested to us anew,
And have brought us together, Lord,
To admonish us through Your Word,
Grant us grace to this.
O Gott Vater, wir loben dich,
Und diene Güte preisen:
Die du, o Herr, so gnadiglich,
Un uns neu hast bewiesen,
Und hast uns Herr zusammen g’führt,
Uns zu ermahnen durch dein Wort,
Gib uns Genad zu diesem.
As in any worship service, when many human voices blend together in sounds of praise, God is honored. Music has a way to pierce into the inner parts of our soul, and singing unites us as a body of believers. As the apostle Paul wrote, “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace…” (Col. 3:16).
The songs in the Ausbund contain important statements about our Christian faith and heritage. When I was a young and restless Amish boy, I viewed this nearly 500-year-old hymn book as tired and irrelevant. I questioned why I had to sing these dusty old songs that felt more like a funeral dirge than an upbeat worship song. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a new appreciation and respect for the richness of these old songs.
In a time when missionaries are under attack, being held hostage, and killed, the Ausbund and its songs of persecution are more relevant today than ever. May you find renewed interest and worship in the collection of Ausbund songs and the interpretation of our ancestors’ journey in the Christian faith.
Let us end by reflecting on the 30th verse of Hymn #112 in the Ausbund. This song was written sometime between 1535-1537 by one of the leaders of the imprisoned Anabaptists in Passau, Hans Betz, who died in prison.
To this end may the eternal God help us,
Who rules everything.
What He has begun in us,
He wants by grace to complete.
Lord, this is our prayer to you.
Keep us always in your peace
Elam Stoltzfus currently serves as caretaker of the Nicholas Stoltzfus Homestead in (Berks County) Wyomissing, Pennsylvania. In 2018, he traveled to Germany to document the history of the Stoltzfus family—this research is documented in German Lutherans to Pennsylvania Amish: The Stoltzfus Family Story. To order a copy of this book, you can mail a $30 check to Elam Stoltzfus, 1700 Tulpehocken Road, Wyomissing, PA 19610.
Sources: Wikipedia – Ausbund; Song of the Ausbund at the Ohio Amish Library; The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund – Pandora Press.