By Karen Wright Marsh

THE REFORMER MARTIN LUTHER (1483-1546) gave out a great deal of advice, much of it documented in his 3,000 letters to parishioners, friends and family members, princes and commoners. Topping the pastor’s “Don’t” list: lying late abed, gluttony, harsh ascetism. On his “Do” list: gardening, hard work, bowling, Scripture reading, joking, games, wine, prayer.

To Prince Joachim of Anhalt, a 26-year-old afflicted by “melancholy and dejection of spirit,” Martin urged the companionship of others along with the healthy rigors of riding and hunting—and warned him against a fear-based solitude that is poisonous and fatal to all people, especially a young man.”

Six months later, when poor Joachim was no better, Martin prescribed music—singing and playing instruments—as the pathway to healing. Music, the absolute best of God’s gifts, could “rule over the feelings of the human heart” to “make the sad joyful, the joyful sad, the timid brave and the proud humble.”

Songs of God’s mercy had the power to shield the prince’s heart from evil and drive away Satan himself. In his day, Martin Luther was an enthusiastic singer, capable lute player, passable songwriter, and prolific hymn writer who composed “sermons in sound.” This church reformer and cultural influencer hosted choral parties at his house and filled every church service with song, urging even illiterate congregants to join in with the choir. “I, Dr. Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music, grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!” he pronounced.

Woe to any tactless person who dared assert they just couldn’t or wouldn’t sing, for they got a verbal thrashing from the doctor: He condemned them as bumbling idiots worthy to hear only the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs. To be fully human was to sing: using this beautiful and priceless gift granted by God to praise our good Creator, experience fellowship with our sisters and brothers, and embody with our voices the beauty of life.

Martin’s elevation of music went far beyond his personal, artistic preferences. Singing had its subversive uses too.

Since the fateful day the young monk had posted his inflammatory Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door, then refused to recant his radical disputations, the church in power had outlawed him as a heretic and banned his writings. But where books could not go, pop songs readily could. Martin Luther combined familiar German tunes with catchy, theological lyrics to broadcast the Reformation message of God’s liberating grace. Regardless of listeners’ ability to read, their social standing, or even their location, the songs went viral; it was reported that husbands and wives, young women and men, literally everyone was soon “gladly singing” Martin’s infectious songs—collapsing the old divides between the secular and the sacred, the domestic and the public, the here and now and the eternal.

In the town of Magdeburg, so many people loudly sang Luther’s German psalms on repeat that hymn vendors were declared a public nuisance and imprisoned.

As this new community made music together, they were converted into a lyrical culture of resistance, Scripture, and worship. “The Word of God should be read, sung, preached, written and set in poetry,” Martin wrote. “Wherever it may be helpful and beneficial, I should gladly have it rung out by all bells and played on all organ pipes and proclaimed by everything that makes a sound.”

Even the youngest children in their midst were schooled in music and raised in this theology of melody. To the end of his life, Martin Luther heeded the counsel he had once given to gloomy Prince Joachim, for he too was afflicted by episodes of dark depression. Music brought healing to Martin’s struggling spirit and assured him of the coming bliss of heaven, complete with angelic choirs. Music was a gift Martin returned to God with praise of his own, singing:

For God our loving Lord did
Music make
To be a proper singer, the
master of composers:
Day and night she sings and
sounds God’s praise.
Since nothing will tire her in
praising the Lord,
My own song, too, shall
honor God
And give God thanks

This article is from the July/August 2023 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.