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Historical Background

The earliest known writing by an Anabaptist on the subject of singing is that of Conrad Grebel, who expressed his opposition to singing in 1524 with the same argument as did his teacher Zwingli: all that was needed (in worship) was the Word; but also because Grebel understood singing to be forbidden by the Apostle Paul (Ephesians and Colossians), and because he thought singing might cause either vexation or conceit. Another early Anabaptist leader, Balthasar Hubmaier, was not opposed to singing, but cautioned, in 1526, that unless people sang with understanding and from the heart and with the Holy Spirit, God would not accept their songs. The same thought was echoed by the Hutterite leader, Peter Riedemann, somewhat later, when be said that singing spiritual songs is pleasing to God only if people sing attentively, in the fear of God, and as inspired by the spirit of Christ. Singing for carnal pleasure (aus Fleisches Lust) or for the beauty of the sound, according to Riedemann, is a serious sin. He also noted that the Hutterites allowed singing of spiritual songs only. Menno Simons had virtually nothing to say about singing other than that hymns should not be sung thoughtlessly or frivolously. The Dutch Mennonite, Hans de Ries, in his preface to the hymnal Lietboeck (1582), wrote the most detailed critique of and instructions regarding singing. He decried singing without a spirit of true devotion, taking pleasure in the sound of human voices and of the melody, not paying heed to the meaning of the words, and singing hymns while living unregenerate lives, without having experienced the truths of the songs, or without a spirit of gratitude. He then continued with admonitions that spiritual songs must be sung to the glory of God in a true spirit of devotion and with a heart that has turned from all earthly things; that they must be sung for edification of oneself and one's neighbor, and be accompanied by a life reflecting the faith of the singer.

In the 18th century, influenced by North German Pietist hymnals, Prussian Mennonite reflection on singing gave more attention to the power of music. In the preface to a hymnal of 1752, edifying singing is described as capable of causing the sinner to be converted, bringing the wrongdoer onto the right path, admonishing the unruly, comforting mourners, instructing the ignorant, and making the zealous stronger and more godly.

Some 20th-century North American Mennonite hymnals contain prefaces with comments on historical, aesthetic, and practical considerations of hymns, whereas the Mennonite Brethren have continued to emphasize that singing of hymns be done from the heart and that the singer must repent if he is unable to do so; in addition, as did the Pietists of old, they caution that art is not to overshadow content and truth, and that hymns are a powerful witness to visitors.

The Practice of Singing

Early Anabaptist and Hutterite songs give accounts of men and women singing while going to their deaths by fire or water (the earliest being the account of Felix Manz singing "Into thy hands, Lord, I commend my spirit" before he was drowned in 1527) and of prisoners in separate dungeons in the same castles very loudly singing spiritual songs to comfort and encourage one another in the faith and to let the brethren on the outside know where they were imprisoned.

Ausbund title page, 1564

The earliest known account of Anabaptists singing when they met to worship was that of the singing of a communion hymn in Franconia in 1527. During interrogation at trials in the next decade Anabaptists stated that they sang psalms in their meetings. The earliest Anabaptist hymnal was published in 1564 (Ausbund), but Anabaptists wrote and sang many hundreds of songs to the tunes of popular songs, the new Lutheran and Reformed Church hymns, some ancient Roman Catholic chants, and other melodies.

The publication of a great number of hymnals, at first in the Dutch language, and then in German in Prussia and Russia, is evidence that singing became a very important part of worship among the Dutch-Prussian-Russian Mennonites. In the 18th century a hymnal used a great deal by the Mennonites of Prussia was Geistreiches Gesangbuch (1767), based on the Pietist hymnal of the same name that was compiled by Freylinghausen. When the Mennonites left Prussia for Russia after 1788, they took two hymnals, containing both the older Lutheran chorales and newer Pietist hymns with them. An account of a worship service in the Chortitza colony in 1840, written much later, describes the unaccompanied unison singing of a congregation of some 50 persons led by a Vorsänger (cantor); it is described as having been so energetic and strong that it seemed as if they wanted to "topple the walls of Jericho." According to the account, most sang from memory. Singing was an important activity among the Russian Mennonites at occasions other than worship services; for instance, at weddings the young couple was greeted by a choir as they entered the sanctuary, and the congregation sang numerous hymns during the service. After the church service, the single young people and young married couples sang during the ritual of replacing the bride's myrtle wreath and veil, and for the rest of the evening the younger people played singing games while the older generation looked on. At other informal social gatherings young people in Russian Mennonite villages sang, often with guitar accompaniment, and played the same singing games as at weddings. At the turn of the century, a minister in one village, Jacob Martens, instituted Sunday afternoon gatherings in his home for the youth, at which, in addition to studying the Bible and other great literature, they sang and made instrumental music. Somewhat later, the Gesanggottesdienst (song service), comprising solo, ensemble, and choral singing, together with readings from the Bible and intended as a type of evangelistic service, became an important musical genre in Russian Mennonite villages. When they migrated to America, the Russian Mennonites brought along the hymnals they had used in Russia and soon also instituted large choral festivals which became major musical and social events for young and old.

One of the most striking aspects of congregational singing in all but the conservative branches of the Mennonite churches is four-part singing. This was greatly facilitated in what eventually became the Mennonite Church (MC) by singing schools modeled by Joseph Funk, on those formed at the beginning of the 19th century in the eastern United States. Funk published Genuine church music (1832; renamed Harmonia Sacra in 1851), for use in the singing schools.

In Russia, four-part congregational singing in the Mennonite churches was greatly aided by the fact that at the end of the 19th century virtually every young person became a member of the church choir, singing with numbers (Ziffern), and that they continued to do so after immigration to America. In the United States part-singing by the congregation was encouraged in the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) by the publication in 1890 of a hymnal which contained both text and four-part harmony in one volume.

Until the 1980s the use of instruments was resisted in the Mennonite Church (MC) because they were "worldly" and because of fear that the tradition of four-part congregational singing would suffer. Although Russian Mennonites have made use of organs and pianos in worship, their harmonized congregational singing has not declined. A significant change that has taken place in the Mennonite Church beginning in the 1960s, was the addition of pianos or organs or both; however, many congregations still prefer to sing without instruments and use the organ or piano only for preludes and postludes and as accompaniment for the occasional duets or other small vocal ensembles. Occasionally they have instrumental music as "special music." Furthermore, in many urban churches a choir may sing for special occasions. Whereas in the past, the only music at worship services in Mennonite Church (MC) congregations was congregational singing and an occasional male quartet, and at weddings, only congregational singing and male quartets, a wedding at an urban MC church in the late 1980s is very much like that of other Mennonite churches.

Most Old Colony Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites, and Amish continue to sing in unison and in the German language in their worship services and have no music other than unaccompanied congregational singing in their religious services, Most Old Colony Mennonites in Canada and Mexico still sing the hymns of the 18th-century Gesangbuch based on the German Geistreiches Gesangbuch of 1767. The Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference (EMMC), which comes out of that tradition, has English and Low German worship services and in the 1980s had adopted the Worship hymnal of the Mennonite Brethren church for use in English-language worship. They sing in harmony; choirs composed of young people and small vocal ensembles sing in EMMC worship services.

Most of the Amish continue to sing from the Ausbund in worship services, but the Amish at Aylmer, Ont. sing from the 1892 edition of Unpartheyische Liedersammlung, which contains some Ausbund songs. Most Amish young people sing the hymns from Unpartheiische Liedersammlung (first ed., 1820) and secular songs, e.g., country and western music, at their "singings," which provide the main opportunities for courting. But at Aylmer, the young people sing from the Sunday school hymnal with supplement, which contains many gospel songs. The use of instruments is forbidden.

Some Old Order Mennonites conduct singing schools in which they use a book with shaped notes, such as Philharmonia (1875), which contains many of the standard old hymns, but in the 1980s they have also adopted Christian hymnal (1959), which consists mainly of gospel songs. This is the official songbook for use in the Sunday evening " singings" of the young people, but they also sing from books such as Radio favorites in four-part harmony. Old Order Mennonites in Canada use Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung (first ed., 1836) in their worship services; in the United States they sing from Unpartheyische Liedersammlung. The church does not allow use of instruments. Some, like the Markham Mennonites in Ontario, who left the Old Order Mennonite Church, sing two German and two English hymns in their worship services, from Gemeinschaftliche Liedersammlung and Mennonite hymns (1953) respectively. Part-singing is not forbidden in their worship services, except for the more conservative Old Order groups in the United States. At Old Order Mennonite singing schools and Sunday evening "singings," the young people sing gospel songs in harmony but without instrumental accompaniment

The singing of gospel songs has been the cause for considerable controversy in the Mennonite church. It is said that Joseph Funk published Harmonia Sacra because he was opposed to gospel songs; however, many Mennonite Church (MC) congregations have sung almost exclusively gospel songs for considerable periods in their history. When the Russian Mennonite church divided in 1860, the new branch, called the Mennonite Brethren, sang almost exclusively translations of American gospel songs. Today virtually all Mennonite churches sing some gospel songs, even in Europe. Since 1969 the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonites have shared hymnals (Mennonite hymnal; later Hymnal, a worship book), and sing the hymns of the various ethnic groups: Swiss psalms German chorales and Pietist hymns and American folk hymns, gospel songs, and spirituals. 

There was lively debate in the 1980s among the Mennonite Brethren about the trend, in many of their congregations, towards the use of choruses, Christian "pop" (popular) music, aided by amplifiers microphones, and body movements imitating the general North American entertainment industry in worship services. Some General Conference churches, particularly on the West Coast, followed this trend also.

Unaccompanied singing at the unison and octave (but sometimes, unknowingly, in parallel fourths) has always been an important part of Hutterite life: in daily worship, for recreation, as a means of inculcating the articles of' faith, and, very importantly, to keep their history alive. The latter is done by singing the historical songs which Anabaptists and Hutterites wrote in the 16th and 17th centuries and which comprise a large part of their Lieder der Hutterischen Brüder. Just as the school curriculum of the Hutterites in the 18th century consisted of (memorizing) prayers, singing, and writing (songs), so it has continued in their Saturday school under the direction of a Hutterite teacher. Hutterites still take Riedemann's thoughts about singing very seriously -- they are fearful of singing "aus Fleisches Lust," and sing their old songs at the beginning and end of worship services in order to awaken a spirit of devotion and to give encouragement, in accordance with Riedemann's precepts. They have aurally transmitted the melodies of their 16th and 17th-century songs, and most of them sing in the shrill, nasal style that they have employed throughout their history. In addition to singing at their worship services and at home, Hutterites also sing for three or four hours on four evenings before the one wedding day of the year. Many of the songs on these occasions are gospel songs. There have been dramatic changes in many of the Hutterite colonies of late: when fraternal relations with the (Hutterian) Society of Brothers  in the eastern United States were reestablished for almost 20 years, some Hutterite colonies were very open to evangelists, some of them watched a Canadian Christian television program at school. Thus they were exposed to much new music and in some colonies the young people sang these new songs in harmony.

See also Church Music


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Author(s) Helen Martens
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Martens, Helen. "Singing." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 26 Sep 2022.

APA style

Martens, Helen. (1990). Singing. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 26 September 2022, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 825-827. All rights reserved.

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