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A Review of “The Whole Church Sings”

Reprinted with permission from Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly Vol. 92, No. 4 Winter 2019 Issue

Robin A. Leaver. The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017. 206 pp.
$22.00, paperback. 

“The Whole Church Sings” masterfully presents the importance to Martin Luther of a vernacular singing of the faith on the part of the congregation. And while it is hard to imagine how much Luther was dealing with during those earliest years of the Reformation, Robin Leaver’s work here lets the reader have a glimpse into the surprising amount of time, energy and thought that Luther gave to this one particular subject that he seemed to care about so deeply: vernacular congregational singing. 

Leaver’s thesis is that “vernacular congregational song in Wittenberg was an active concern from 1523 onward” (162). And through his meticulous scholarship, his brilliant in-depth analysis, and his careful fitting together of all the pieces of a truly complex puzzle, Leaver solidly supports his thesis in what is perhaps the most comprehensive study yet written in English concerning the earliest days of Lutheran congregational singing.

This is the story of hymnals, and in particular Leaver’s insightful look at the single extant copy of the 1526, Enchyridion geistlicher gesange und psalm fur die leyen (Handbook of Spiritual Song and Psalm for the Laity), but it is much more. Leaver tells the fascinating story of Luther’s role in shaping how this fledgling church was developing in Wittenberg with respect to its churchly singing in all of its various forms. Leaver writes, “At every opportunity Luther and his colleagues were concerned to get the whole congregation—not just part of it—involved in the singing, teaching them of the need to sing the scriptural Word, giving them the texts and melodies to sing, and supplying the musical means by which an antiphony of unison and harmony graced their services of worship” (162).

“The Whole Church Sings” is also an important study concerning matters liturgical. How Luther went about reforming the daily Masses and Offices is a lesson in how to implement change in matters of the church’s practice. For Luther, one starts with theology and moves to practice. As he wrote in a letter to the clergy in Lubeck in 1530, “Adequate reform of ungodly rites will come of itself, however, as soon as the fundamentals of our teaching, having been successfully communicated, have taken root in devout hearts” (40, 41).  Leaver’s work allows the reader to behold Luther’s rather gentle and pastoral approach to these reforms as he worked with the Wittenberg clergy to implement change.

I heartily encourage Lutheran pastors and church musicians to read and benefit from Robin Leaver’s scholarship that is so on display here. This is important reading, especially in these times for American Lutheranism that often challenge even the very fundamentals of Lutheran liturgical worship practice. Leaver’s careful look at the “singing roots” that so define us as Lutherans is an outstanding resource for today’s pastors and church musicians seeking to remain faithful to the heart and soul of those earliest roots and principles.  

Richard C. Resch 

Professor and Kantor Emeritus

Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN