The transition from the German language to English could rightly be considered one of the most challenging issues in the history of confessional Lutheranism in America. That transition forced countless Lutherans to express their faith and doctrine no longer in the language of Luther, but in a language influenced by the Reformed faith and the King James Version of the Bible.
Nowhere was the challenge of this transition more evident than in the worship life and hymnody of the Lutheran church. While the Lutheran church took as its own many beautiful English-language hymns, many beloved German hymns fell out of use when suitable translations could not be found. Of course, the Lutheran church held on to many of her greatest hymns with new English translations, yet by the mid-20th century, much of our old German hymnological heritage was gathering dust.
In recent years, a resurgence in translation efforts has enabled our Lutheran fathers to finally speak in English and their spiritual treasures restored to new prominence. Among these newly uncovered treasures is Matthew Carver’s translated edition of Walther’s Hymnal. This translation is the first complete metrical translation of C.F.W. Walther’s Kirchengesangbuch. Originally published in 1847, Walther’s Kirchengesangbuch became the standard German hymnal of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod for the next 70 years.
Walther’s Hymnal has been widely recognized as an important contribution to the ongoing restoration of the works of our Lutheran fathers. Carver translated it with “the intent…to make intelligible to the average speaker of English a historical artifact which at one time served the church well, and which, it is hoped, may still be found useful today for the private and public devotion and edification of the church.” (xv) Walther’s Hymnal certainly accomplishes that goal.
The hymnal includes the full translated text of 443 hymns all written by confessional Lutheran hymnwriters, translations of collects, prayers, the Passion History, and Josephus’ account of the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as a summary of omitted portions of the hymnal and where translations can be found elsewhere. The book concludes with two appendices—the morning service commonly used prior to the 1888 Common Service and a collection of supplementary hymn tunes—and several indices that could be useful for further research.
Walther’s Hymnal was meant to be used not only as a public worship resource used in the “Evangelical Lutheran congregations of the unaltered Augsburg Confession”, but also as a prayer book and devotional that could be put to use in the home and school. It is no wonder why it was considered such a treasure for generations of Missouri Synod Lutherans. It is obviously not a book meant to be read cover to cover, but to supplement one’s devotional life.
A comparison of Walther’s Hymnal with modern confessional Lutheran hymnals yields a number of interesting observations for modern pastors and those interested in the history of Lutheran worship:
- Reading through the seasonal portions of Walther’s Hymnal, the reader will notice how different the Christmas and Easter hymnody of past generations was to the English-language hymnody of today. Many familiar “Christmas carols” of today were not part of Lutheran hymnody in the 19th century, while many of our Lenten and Easter hymns were once sung with vigor in the German language. It was a good reminder of the need for faithful pastors to continue to bring out treasures old and new when it comes to hymnody.
- It was not unusual in Walther’s era for hymns to have 10, 15, even 20 verses in length. Surely these hymns required a stamina that has been lost today. Sadly with the advent of modern Lutheran hymnals, many beautiful verses were condensed or chopped out. However, the new translations in Walther’s Hymnal offer hope for the possible restoration of those verses that have disappeared from modern hymnals.
- Compared to modern hymnals, the number of hymn tunes used in Walther’s Hymnal was far fewer than today. In fact, they were often quite interchangeable with other hymns in different portions of the hymnal. The reader will also discover that familiar texts sometimes had different tunes than what is commonly sung today.
- Sometimes hymns in larger categories were designated for use on specific occasions (e.g. end of the week, during a war, during a drought, when a child is near death, at the gravesite). There are also a number of interesting historical notes—including acrostic verses (#255 & #367 – Carver’s translations reflect the original acrostic!), helpful comments in the appendices, and elsewhere.
- This reviewer thoroughly enjoyed the fact that there are 39 hymns by Paul Gerhardt, 31 by Martin Luther, and 29 by Johann Heermann, among many others. Carver does particularly excellent work with the translation of Heermann’s hymns. The reader will enjoy their defiance in Christ against sin, Satan, death, the sinful world, false teachers, etc. (e.g. #370). The lengthy “Cross and Comfort” section will remind the reader of the need to be “heaven-minded” and “Christ-focused” even in the midst of the worst trials and tribulations.
- The reader will notice that the vast majority of hymns in the lengthy “Death and Burial” section had to be translated into English for the first time. This reviewer found it to be the only section where it was clear why some hymns did not make the transition. Our forefathers were more comfortable around death than we are today, but occasionally their imagery and poetry were confusing or even disgusting.
- The reader should also note that due to this translation’s debt to the text of The Lutheran Hymnal (xv), the language of the entire hymnal is Elizabethan in style, including the collects, prayers, and orders of worship in the appendices. While this style did work for a number of new translations (e.g. Carver’s translations of Heermann), the English style does occasionally require the reader to “translate the English into English”.
Archaic language notwithstanding, Walther’s Hymnal is an excellent historical resource that definitely deserves a place on the shelf of every Lutheran pastor. You will find this book worthwhile for professional reasons as a resource for public devotions or as a historical resource on the worship life and hymnody of the Lutheran church, and also for personal reasons as a devotional resource in which you will discover many treasures old and new. Matthew Carver and CPH should be highly commended for making this treasure available to the English-speaking Lutheran church.
C.F.W. Walther (1811-87) helped to found the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Concordia Seminary (St. Louis), and the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America. He led the publication of Der Lutheraner and Lehre und Wehre besides countless other articles, booklets, and publications including Church and Ministry and The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. Walther served as president of the Missouri Synod in its infancy and as head pastor (Oberpfarrer) of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Congregation in St. Louis.
Matthew Carver is a translator of German and classical literature. He is the translator of The Great Works of God: The Mysteries of Christ in the Book of Genesis, Volumes 1 and 2 originally by Valerius Herberger (1562-1627). He is also the author and translator of the blog Hymnoglypt (matthaeusglyptes.blogspot.com), where he provides new translations of older German or Latin hymnody that was once commonly used in the Lutheran church.
Walther’s Hymnal: Church Hymnbook for Evangelical Lutheran Congregations of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession. Translated and Edited by Matthew Carver. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012. 442 pages.