Singing the Resurrection

Body, Community, and Belief in Reformation Europe

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Erin Lambert
New Cultural History of Music
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There is an axiom oft repeated by preachers and worship planners: more people in the church get their theology from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear. It is probably true that the faith of worshipers is shaped more by their favorite hymns than by the testimony of scripture. Regrettably, as many pastors have discovered, some traditional hymns and contemporary praise songs are not particularly faithful to the Bible, and a congregation’s hymnic repertoire is a difficult thing to amend or to expand. To worship with integrity requires careful attention to what the congregation sings. Thoughtful use of hymns in worship can help reinforce sound theology. Careless use of hymns in worship can promote beliefs that mischaracterize the biblical text. Both practices have an influence on the way parishoners live together and interact with the world outside the church door.

The five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses has reminded Christians of the theological principles of the Protestant Reformation and has prompted celebrations of the musical heritage through which they were expressed. Martin Luther was not alone in acknowledging the teaching power of song, and of its role in solidifying faith communities and steeling them against persecution. “A Mighty Fortress” is perhaps the most conspicuous of a multitude of hymns that advanced a Protestant emphasis and demonstrated the potency of well-matched text and tune. The fact that it can be found in Protestant hymnals across denominational lines and even in recent Roman Catholic worship materials proves that music can transcend the official lines of Christian creedal distinctions.

In Singing the Resurrection: Body, Community, and Belief in Reformation Europe, part of the Oxford University Press series “The New Cultural History of Music,” University of Virginia Assistant Professor of History Erin Lambert explores the importance of congregational song during the Reformation era through case histories of a few specific hymns and liturgical settings dealing with death, resurrection, and the community of believers in the Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed traditions, as well as what is commonly, if somewhat pejoratively, termed the Roman Catholic “Counter-Reformation.” Lambert describes her interest as discerning belief as lived experience, and she uses hymnody about death and resurrection as a method for such discernment. Examining life-shaping beliefs about the nature of Christian community on both sides of the grave as expressed in her examples of hymns and service music, Lambert offers a detailed description of how medieval assumptions about the individual’s place in this world were expressed through musical claims about life in the next (or, in the Anabaptist example, how the resurrection was emphatically something to be experienced in this life). The book, developed from Lambert’s own dissertation, includes a wealth of footnotes and ample bibliography testifying to her exhaustive research into her chosen pieces of music as well as the social milieu upon which the church’s song was being embroidered during the Reformation era.

Lambert traces the origins, development, and use of these selected hymns and ritual settings to illustrate the existential concerns of Protestants fleeing persecution by religious opponents, Protestants working and worshiping amidst the uncertainties that geopolitics posed for the profession and practice of their faith, and Catholics negotiating the relationship between earthly and heavenly kingdoms. Nevertheless, the case studies “are not intended as representatives of confessional traditions at large,” and “the conception of belief that emerges insists that no sample of individuals no matter how large, can speak on behalf of all others in a category whose fixity as we have come to know it has been constructed over the course of centuries. Rather, each of these cases is a local instantiation, inflected by circumstance and the perspective of individual experience… As a result, each chapter should be taken not as an explanation of the formation of beliefs within a confession but as an illumination of a particular dimension of belief in sixteenth-century Europe” (18)—that is, how belief about the individual’s resurrection shaped life in Christian communities. If not to be understood as suggestive of more broadly-shared doctrinal perspectives, however, the study’s value to scholars and certainly to the casual reader must remain limited.

Apart from references to the hymn writers’ and publishers’ sometimes incidental and even accidental relationship with Reformers whose names are well known, there are only hints here of the larger theme of whether and how hymns were intentionally used to advance or blunt the Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed movements. Lambert has researched the influence of major figures of the Reformation on the authors, composers, and worship leaders connected with these specific songs, but the book does not address the great Reformers’ use of hymnody intentionally to nurture belief and direct behavior, assuming that their appreciation for the power of congregational song stimulated such an agenda. Even while offering these few hymns as windows into popular belief and the communal identities it shaped, the author notes that her book represents a scholarly trend of moving away from confessional histories of the Reformation in recognition that belief was never uniform within any of the various confessional traditions. Thus, Lambert’s treatment describes artifacts of sixteenth-century congregational song, specifically in relationship to but not as representative of belief about resurrection and Christian community, rather than analyzing whether and how song was consciously used to shape and inculcate the distinctive theology upon which each of four religious traditions—Lutheranism, Anabaptism, Reformed, and Tridentine Catholicism—was based. The reader must look elsewhere to discover any intentional program through which the doctrines about resurrection and the nature of Christian community enunciated by Luther, Simons, Calvin, and the Council of Trent were translated into the lyrics sung by believers in cathedral and meeting house, parlor and shop. The theological shifts which Lambert says are exhibited in the selected Protestant hymns were an intentional break with medieval Catholic teaching. Was Reformation-era music programmatically pedagogical or merely expressive of doctrinal changes? This study does not answer that ultimate question about congregational song in the sixteenth century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce Taylor is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
March 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erin Lambert is assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia. Her research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and the Social Science Research Council.


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