The Stories behind Your Favorite Reformation Hymns

October 24, 2023 Concordia Publishing House

Why have certain hymns grown to be synonymous with the Reformation? With these excerpts from Eternal Anthems and Companion to the Hymns, you’re invited to journey through the contexts of some of these Reformation favorites. 

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” – LSB 656

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” was most likely written sometime between 1527 and 1529, a period that saw an epidemic hit Wittenberg, a serious illness befall Martin Luther, Turkish forces threatening the German borders, further threats from Catholic armies, and theological attacks from both Catholics and more radical Protestants. The hymn is often called the “battle hymn of the Reformation,” but in Luther’s day, it was thought of in different terms, as can be seen from the heading on an Augsburg broadsheet of 1529: “A hymn of comfort”—something that was sorely needed at the time. The hymn retained this designation at least until the middle of the seventeenth century, at which time Lutheran hymnals took their versified psalms, which were traditionally placed together in a separate section of their own, and separated them into various topical categories. The placement of this hymn in a section dealing with the Church and the Word of God made it easier to think of it as a polemical hymn.

The hymn has often been translated into English, but the translations most frequently found are Thomas Carlisle’s 1831 text “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still,” well known in Britain, and Frederick H. Hedge’s version beginning “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,” which is more popular in America. The Missouri Synod has historically used neither, but rather a translation from the 1868 Church Book of the General Council, a theologically conservative Lutheran body. In some ways, this translation, which stays quite close to the German, is a bit wooden; however, it is sanctified by long use in the Synod, with many church members having memorized it. It is set to Luther’s original version of the tune.

“God’s Word Is Our Great Heritage” – LSB 582

Nikolai Fredrik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872) lived at a time when Rationalism had nearly destroyed Christianity among the clergy in much of Europe, including his own country of Denmark. Through his studies, Grundtvig came to a more traditional form of Christianity, closer to that of his father, an orthodox Lutheran pastor. But he developed an unusual view of the Word of God, making a false distinction between the written Word of God in the Holy Scriptures, which according to Grundtvig only tells us about Christ, and what he called the “living Word,” centered in the Apostles’ Creed and the Sacraments, which brings Christ to us. Nevertheless, he valued the Scriptures much more highly than the Rationalists did, and this hymn reflects that.

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Reformation in 1817, Grundtvig published a collection of hymns entitled Psalmer ved Jubel-Festen 1817, which included his free version of Luther’s “A mighty fortress is our God” (LSB 656–57) entitled “Guds Kirke er saa fast en Borg” and originally sung to Luther’s tune. “God’s Word is our great heritage” is the fifth stanza of this hymn.

“Built on the Rock” – LSB 645

The original version of this hymn by N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872) appeared in his 1837 Sang-Værk til den Danske Kirke with nine stanzas. He later shortened it to seven. LSB omits two more, reducing the hymn to five stanzas. The two stanzas Grundtvig himself eliminated included more of his controversial concept of the “living word,” a low view of written Scripture, some specific references to the Nordic region, and some sentiment against clergy. Apart from these peculiarities, and against a huge tide of Rationalism, Grundtvig came to value and accept a rather traditional view of Christianity. He was also a proponent of education and an advocate for the common people.

The occasion for writing this hymn is uncertain, but [C. T.] Aufdemberge suggests a possible reason: “Since 1807 the old cathedral Church of Our Lady in Copenhagen was in ruins, the result of English bombardment of the Danish-Norwegian forces during the Napoleonic Wars. Perhaps this inspired Grundtvig to emphasize the concept of ‘living stones’ rather than the crumbled spires of the physical church.”

Te Deum: “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” – LSB 940

Called the “German Te Deum,” this hymn is a versification of one of Christendom’s oldest and best-known hymns of praise to the Holy Trinity and to Jesus Christ, our Redeemer. The German version was written by Roman Catholic priest Ignaz Franz (1719–90). The translator, Clarence A. Walworth (1820–1900), was a Presbyterian who became a Roman Catholic priest in 1845 after a brief flirtation with the Episcopal Church via the Oxford Movement. Part of his religious training took place in Belgium, where he probably encountered this German Te Deum. The popularity of his English version is evident in the many hymnals, both Catholic and Protestant, in which it has appeared.

You can find more insights like these in Eternal Anthems, including devotional commentary and historical facts on dozens of your favorite hymns. Discover the factors that influenced writers to craft their Gospel-proclaiming hymns. 


Excerpts adapted from Eternal Anthems, vols. 1 and 2, © 2022 and © 2023 CPH, and Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns © 2019 CPH, all rights reserved.



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