Music, Church (1956)

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[This article reflects Mennonite thinking in the mid-20th century; read it in the context of its time.]


Music, vocal and instrumental, was a regular part of Old Testament temple worship. The early Christians used vocal, but not instrumental, music in their worship. Christ and His disciples in the upper room before the betrayal "sang an hymn." The Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) urged his churches to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," and James advised a "merry" Christian to "sing psalms" (James 5:13). John the Revelator pictures the victorious Christians singing the song of Moses and the Lamb in the future glory. Paul and Silas sang praises in prison (Acts 16:25), as many persecuted Christians and martyrs have done since.

The early Christian congregational singing, one-part in character, was gradually supplanted by liturgical singing (promoted greatly by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 333-97, and still more by Pope Gregory the Great, 598-604), which became the exclusive function of the clergy, assisted by special male choirs, who sang only in Latin in the West. The organ was introduced into church music in the West by Charlemagne (ca. 800). In the Middle Ages only the small groups outside the church such as the Albigenses and Waldenses continued congregational singing, in the vernacular, and also used singing in their evangelistic efforts. Because of the effective use of singing by the "heretical" groups, alert Roman Catholic leaders like Berthold of Regensburg (d. 1272) urged the use of singing in the vernacular by the church because "the heretics were leading people astray" by "composing songs and teaching them to the children in the streets."

But it was the Lutheran Reformation which first restored congregational singing in the vernacular, though with the retention of the organ. Luther's first published order of service (Deutsche Messe, 1526) provided for two or three hymns to be sung by the congregation. Luther himself composed some songs and wrote some hymns. Lutheranism, however, as did Anglicanism, retained the liturgical type of worship service.

It was the Reformed phase of the Reformation which did away with the liturgy altogether and made congregational singing the people's part in the worship service. At first, however, Zwingli, though a lover of music, banished both singing and the organ from the church service, basing his position on Amos 5:23. It was not until 1598 that singing was reintroduced into the worship in Zürich.

Although Conrad Grebel himself, in line with Zwingli, also opposed all music including singing in worship, the early Anabaptists made much use of singing almost from the beginning, and many Anabaptists wrote hymns, over 130 Anabaptist hymn writers being known. One section of the Ausbund consists of hymns which were "composed and sung at Passau in the castle (prison) by the Swiss Brethren," as the title states. Without doubt hymns were a factor in Anabaptist evangelism, both sung and read. Christian Neff said (Mennonitisches Lexikon II, 86), "A flood of religious songs poured over the young brotherhood like a vivifying and refreshing stream. The songs became the strongest attractive force for the brotherhood. They sang themselves into the hearts of many, clothed in popular tunes. They were mostly martyr songs, which breathed an atmosphere of readiness to die and a touching depth of faith. And those that did not report on martyr steadfastness admonished the listener to a devout faith, which was to prove itself in love. Sanctification and its demonstration in life and death is their glorious content." By the middle of the 16th century five printed Anabaptist hymnals had appeared, in addition to numerous song leaflets and handwritten materials (the Hutterite hymnal was not published until 1914, although hymn codices have been preserved from as early as 1570). In 1594 the Anabaptists of the Gladbach area were meeting in Alitgen Cüper's house where their singing could be heard daily, especially in the evening (see Rheydt).

Congregational singing has thus been a regular part of Anabaptist-Mennonite  worship  from  the beginning. In Europe it largely remained one-part singing in Holland, but by the second half of the 19th century was developing into four-part singing, especially by congregational choral groups, in South Germany, France, Switzerland, and somewhat later in Russia and North America.

The use of the reed organ and pipe organ in worship was introduced into the Dutch Mennonite churches in the fourth quarter of the 18th century (first case in Utrecht in 1765), but not until considerably later elsewhere. It was little used in Russia at any time, and was still not permitted in the more conservative groups in North America in the 1950s including, for instance, the Mennonite Church (MC). It came into general use in the other American groups about the turn of the 20th century. About one third of North American Mennonites in the 1950s used the organ or piano in worship.

Choirs were not used at all in regular worship in the 1950s anywhere in Europe, and in North America only in those groups which used an instrument in worship, and even then not uniformly. Choirs were, however, often used for special occasions in South Germany, France, Switzerland, and now again Russia, as well as in South America and most North American groups including the Mennonite Church, but not in the strictly conservative groups. Before the use of an instrument, and in the mid-20th century in groups not using instruments, the congregational singing was and is led by a song leader called a chorister or Vorsanger.

The church music of the Mennonites was completely non-liturgical in the 1950s. Since Mennonites had produced almost no composers of church music of their own, although in Anabaptist times they produced many of their own hymns, they have used the tunes of other Protestant churches. They have thus also been influenced by their environment and affinities in the type of church music used. Pietism, Methodism, and revivalism have all had their influence. This influence has been particularly noticeable in the past two generations in South Germany, France, Switzerland, Russia, and America; Holland and North Germany have remained largely untouched. This has resulted in the displacement of much of the older, slower music of the chorale type by a faster and lighter type commonly known as the "gospel song." In the mid-20th century a wholesome return toward the solider type of music was noticeable, while retaining the best of the gospel songs.

Conscious effort has been made in certain North American groups to maintain and improve the quality of congregational singing as well as the quality of music used. "Singing classes" or "singing schools" were widely used in the Mennonite Church (MC) for this purpose, both to teach the rudiments of music and improve hymn interpretation. Chorister training conferences and church music institutes have also been held in this group. A standing committee of the Mennonite General Conference, the Music Committee created in 1909, has sponsored these and other measures, as well as having responsibility for editing hymnals for the church. Among the outstanding leaders of church music in the Mennonite (MC) Church have been C. H. Brunk (1845-1921), J. D. Brunk (1872-1926), S. F. Coffman (1872-1954), J. W. Yoder (1872-1956), and Walter E. Yoder (1889- ). All of these men also composed some music for hymns which were included in the hymnals of the church.

The church music of the Old Order Amish is unique among Mennonite groups by virtue of their four century-long traditional and continued use of both hymns and tunes. The sole hymnal used in the regular public worship was still the ancient Swiss Brethren hymnal, the Ausbund (first ed. 1564), probably the oldest Christian hymnal in continuous use. This hymnal, though indicating the tunes to be used with the hymns, never printed any notes, and no tune-book had been published by the 1950s. The tunes were handed down from the beginning by memory; many of them have been identified as coming directly from 16th-century religious and folk-tunes. J. W. Yoder transcribed some of the Amish tunes and published them with the words in Amische Lieder (1942). Recordings have also been made of a number of the tunes, which have been deposited in the Library of Congress and Mennonite Historical Library (Goshen, Indiana, USA). Rote perpetuation of the 16th-century tunes has naturally resulted in considerable "distortion."

The Old Colony Mennonites in Manitoba, Mexico, and Paraguay had a similar experience in their church music as the Amish, except that their tunes go back only about half the length of time. They were still using as their hymnal essentially the Geistreiches Gesangbuch of their Russian-Prussian ancestors, first published as a noteless hymnal in 1767 at Königsberg. The tunes indicated in the hymnal have been handed down by rote, and hence have also been subject to distortion, although for a short time the Franz Choralbuch of 1860 was used in Russia by a part of the later "Old Colony" immigrants to Canada. Both Old Order Amish and Old Colony Mennonites, as well as the Hutterites, still sing in what is called the "old" or "slow" style. -- Harold S. Bender

Church Music in the Netherlands

During the persecution hymn singing in Anabaptist-Mennonite meetings was practiced as circumstances permitted it. After persecution ended hymn singing was regularly practiced. The singing was led by a "voorzanger" (precentor); musical instruments including organs were not tolerated as being too worldly. Not until 1765 was a pipe organ placed in a Dutch Mennonite meetinghouse. This first organ was built in the church of Utrecht. Other congregations soon followed: Haarlem (Klein Heiligland) in 1771, Leiden 1774, Rotterdam 1775, Amsterdam (Lamist church) 1777, Zaandam (Nieuwe Huys) 1784, Amsterdam (Zonist church) 1786. Though there was here and there some resistance against organs, yet the introduction nowhere led to discord.

During the 19th century nearly all congregations acquired organs, mostly pipe organs, sometimes a simple harmonium. By 1905 only seven congregations in the Netherlands had no organ; this was not because they were opposed to organs but because the money was lacking. By 1955 all Mennonite churches were provided with organs.

Musical instruments, other than organs, were not used in Dutch Mennonite churches by the 1950s. Congregational singing was always in unison. Sometimes, particularly on special days like on Christmas or the installation of a new pastor, there was choir singing. Choir singing as a regular part of the order of service, as practiced among some American Mennonite branches, was unknown in the Netherlands.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries it was the common practice to sing two hymns at the meeting, one at the beginning and one at the close. During the 17th century the custom gradually developed to sing three times during a meeting. This practice was obviously borrowed from the Calvinist liturgy. Now singing three times and occasionally once or twice more is usual in Dutch Mennonite services.

The first Dutch Mennonite hymnbooks used in the 17th century, such as Vedderhande Liedekens of 1560 and following reprints, Een Nieu Liedenboeck of 1562, Lietboecxken van den Offer des Heeren (at the same time the hymns found in the Offer itself) of 1563 and following editions, Het Tweede Liedeboeck of 1583, Vedderhande Schrijtuerlycke Nieuive Liedeikens by Leenaert Clock, of 1597, and Sommige andachtige ende leerachtige Gheestelicke Ledekens of 1597, are without notes, as are most 17th-century hymnals, such as the Kleyn and the Groot Hoorns Liedtboeck, the Rijper Lietboecxken, Stapel's Lusthoj der Zielen, and many others, and also some 18th-century hymnals like Alle Derks' Lusthoj des Gemoeds. As late as 1814 a reprint of the Kleyn Hoorns Lietboeck appeared without notes. In all these hymnals a melody (or often two) is suggested at the top of each hymn to which the hymn can be sung. These tunes, obviously all familiar to the congregations, were derived from both spiritual and secular songs. Often it was the tune of a psalm. A large number of the old secular songs with their melodies are found in Florimont van Duyse, Het Oude Nederlandsche Lied, 3 vols. (1907). The first Dutch hymnbook to break with the tradition of having no notes was the Lietboeck by Hans de Ries of 1582, in which the entire section containing psalms has notes, while in the following sections only a few hymns have notes, the others having only the indication of a tune. The 18th- and 19th-century hymnals, being usually collections of hymns borrowed from other hymnals, mostly non-Mennonite, took over the melodies from these hymnbooks  together with  the  texts.

Later hymnals used by the Mennonites, such as Protestantenbond-bundel, Leidsche Bundel, and the Doopsgezinde Bundel (1944), contain a list which shows the source of each hymn and melody as well as the composer. Only the Doopsgezinde Bundel indicates Mennonite composers, including in its supplement seven melodies composed by Jacob Bijster (b. 1902), the organist of the Haarlem Mennonite congregation.

There are no Dutch Mennonite composers, either of secular or of church music. Pastor W. H. toe Water composed the music of the Elspeet Broederschapshuis song, while Pastor L. Bonga wrote both the words and the music of the hymn of the Friese. -- Nanne van der Zijpp

Church Music in Prussia, Poland, Russia, and Descendant Communities in North America

The articles Hymnology of the Mennonites of West and East Prussia, Danzig, and Russia, Choirs in Prussia and Russia, Chorister, and Choral-books have treated extensively various aspects of Mennonite church music in this area. The Mennonites of Dutch-Prussian background did not differ greatly in their attitude toward music from the Swiss Brethren, or from the Reformed Church, which used music in worship only to a limited degree. Mennonites, being non-liturgical in their worship, placed more emphasis on the preaching of the Word of God. In fact, there are some claims that the early Prussian Mennonites did not sing during their worship services (Hymnology, 875). If this was the case, it was likely because they were compelled to worship God quietly in order not to attract attention. The singing was as a rule in unison and restricted to congregational singing without instrumental accompaniment. The early hymnbooks had no notes, but indicated for each hymn a melody, which was transmitted by rote from generation to generation. The hymn tunes were either brought from Holland or borrowed from the Lutherans. The singing was slow, very much as it is found today among the Old Colony Mennonites of Mexico or the Old Order Amish and Hutterites. Only after Mennonite spiritual life had been influenced by the pietistic revival movement in Prussia and Russia through German Pietism and the English Baptists, was the traditional singing transformed by faster singing and new melodies. A significant development along these lines was the introduction of written and (later) printed choral-books through which four-part singing and modified faster melodies were introduced. These were first used in the schools, later by village and community choirs, but only gradually and with opposition in congregational singing. The great promoter of improved singing in Russia in school, home, and congregation was Heinrich Franz, who published the Choralbuch in 1860. After this came the lighter gospel songs of T. Kobner (Glaubensstimme) and E. Gebhardt (Heimatklänge, etc.), which were introduced by the Mennonite Brethren, who had adopted them through their Baptist contacts. The Mennonites of Russia used ciphers instead of notes in their melody books.

Even though the congregations gradually accepted a more modern form of music, four-part singing was introduced only with difficulty in some places. Some groups consistently refused the faster and modified melodies, clinging to the old-fashioned slow tunes. This form of singing was transplanted by the Mennonites of the Old Colony in Russia to Canada in the 1870s and from there by the Old Colony Mennonites to Mexico in the 1920s.

Already in Russia congregational singing and the renditions by choirs reached high levels. After the Revolution song festivals and choir schools were among the few church activities left to them. Unser Blatt reported about them regularly in 1925-1927, when this publication ceased and the choirs had to discontinue their work. (By 1956 the choirs were reported singing again.) The Mennonites of this tradition in North and South America, regardless of conference affiliation, continued these practices on even a larger scale. As a rule congregations have no regular orchestras, but congregational as well as choir singing is almost always accompanied by an organ or piano. All these activities can also be found in General Conference Mennonite or related congregations and communities of Pennsylvania-German or Swiss background.

High schools of Mennonite communities usually rank high in their performances. The musical organizations of communities like Berne, Indiana, Kansas, South Dakota, and Manitoba are strong; their programs and the annual rendition of The Messiah, The Seven Last Words, and The Creation by Bethel College, Bluffton College, Tabor College, and Freeman College are attended by thousands of people. Some congregational choirs have become noted for the quality of their performances; this can also be said of the college choirs and other musical organizations which travel regularly to give programs in the constituency. The Mennonite Singers of Bethel College made two trips to Europe where they sang in Mennonite and non-Mennonite communities.

The music festivals of Manitoba under the direction of K. H. Neufeld and Neil Unruh, the Mennonite Symphony Orchestra of Winnipeg under the direction of Ben Horch, and the Bornoff School of Music in Winnipeg under the direction of John Konrad, have done much to maintain traditions brought from Russia and to improve the standard of musical performance. F. C. Thiessen and K. H. Neufeld did much to improve church music in the Mennonite Brethren Church in Canada, and H. C. Richert likewise in the same group in the United States.

Similar activities in vocal and instrumental music can be found in the solid Mennonite communities of the other provinces of Canada and the United States. The colleges have done much to improve and foster good quality of music through their educational programs. At the time when the Mennonites changed from the German to the English language there was a general decline in quality of music, since the traditional German hymn was replaced by the lighter gospel song. In this process the Mennonite colleges have made a very significant contribution in keeping alive the tradition of singing hymns and singing them well. The effects of this are noticeable in the congregational singing of the constituency and in the newer hymnbooks which have been published during the last years (see Hymnology). Walter H. Hohmann, Lester Hostetler, and also other leaders have done much to improve the standards of music. Graduates of Mennonite schools are also teaching or directing choirs in non-Mennonite communities.  (See also Minister of Music)

The  contributions  of  the Mennonites  as  composers of hymn tunes are not as significant as their accomplishments in musical performances. Few, if any, of their works have found a general acceptance beyond their owe circle. Of the 558 hymn tunes of the Christian Hymnal of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, twenty-two are of Mennonite origin, an unusually large number of hymns of Mennonite origin in a Mennonite hymnal. Among the composers of tunes of the Great Plains, Walter H. Hohmann and Herbert C. Richert have probably been most productive. The latter published Young People's Sacred Songs, for which he wrote all the hymn tunes. In addition to this the Mennonite Brethren Church Hymnal contained eight of his hymn tunes. Among Hohmann's compositions and arrangements were Immortality (North Newton, 1945), Bless Thou the Lord (Chicago, 1948), Jesus Put Forth His Hand (Chicago, 1949), and Hymns and Chorales for Men's Voices (Newton, 1955). No doubt other Mennonite musicians have composed music for hymns, published or unpublished. -- Cornelius Krahn

See also Hymnology (1989); Hymnology of the Anabaptists; Hymnology of the Mennonites in the Netherlands; Hymnology of the Mennonites of West and East Prussia, Danzig, and Russia; Hymnology of the North American Mennonites; Hymnology of the Swiss, French, and South German Mennonites



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Duerksen, Rosella. "Anabaptist Hymnody of the Sixteenth Century. A Study of Its Marked Individuality Coupled with a Dependence upon Secular and Sacred Music Style and Form." PhD dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, N.Y., 1956.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 85 f.


Doopsgezinde Bijdragen (1863): 19 f.; (1904): 244.

Knuttel, J. A. N. Het geestelijk lied in der Nederlanden voor de kerkhervorming. Rotterdam, 1906. Reprinted: Groningen : Bouma; Amsterdam : Hagen, 1974.

Scheurleer, Daniel François. De Souterliedekens: bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der oudste Nederlandsche psalmberijming. Leiden: Brill, 1894; Reprinted: Utrecht : Hes Publishers, 1977.

Wieder, F. C. (Frederik Caspar). De Schriftuurlijke liedekens : de liederen der Nederlandsche Hervormden tot op het jaar 1566, inhoudsbeschrijving en bibliographie : academisch proefschrift ... 's-Gravenhage : Martinus Nijhoff, 1900.

Wolkan, Rudolf. Die Lieder der Wiedertäufer. Berlin, 1903. Reprinted Nieuwkoop : B. De Graaf, 1965.

Zijpp, N. van der. Geschiedenis der Doopsgezinden in Nederland. Arnhem, 1952: 108, 110 f., 112-114, 242 note 14.

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Nanne van der Zijpp
Cornelius Krahn
Date Published 1957

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Cornelius Krahn. "Music, Church (1956)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. 18 Jan 2019.,_Church_(1956)&oldid=145762.

APA style

Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp and Cornelius Krahn. (1957). Music, Church (1956). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 January 2019, from,_Church_(1956)&oldid=145762.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 791-794; vol. 4, p. 1146. All rights reserved.

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