Where We Got Our Hymns

by J. Irving Erickson

Chapter 1

It is interesting to note how the hymnals of all groups, including the emigrant churches, have moved to a greater inclusiveness of the whole Christian tradition. This has been true of the hymnals of the Evangelical Covenant Church as well, although material peculiar to that particular heritage has not been sacrificed. This cannot be said of any other denomination that has its roots in Scandinavia. It seems that the Covenant has become the custodian of this tradition. It is with this tradition that this series is concerned.

There are two main sources for these songs and hymns. One is the Psalmbok, which has been the title of the official hymnal of the State Church of Sweden since 1549. The other is the songbooks and hymnals of the Moravians, the Pietists, the Rosenian revival, and the Free Churches of Scandinavia. In Images in Covenant Beginnings, Eric Hawkinson describes the former as “psalmodic, rich in objective content and poetry” and the latter as “more subjective in content and having less poetic depth, set to the rhythms of folk music.” An example of the former is the advent hymn by Franz Michael Franzen (1772–1847), translated by Augustus Nelson and set to a Swedish chorale melody.

Prepare the way, 0 Zion!
Ye awful deeps, rise high;
Sink low, ye lofty mountains,
The Lord is drawing nigh.
The righteous King of glory,
Foretold in sacred story:
O blest is he who came
In God the Father’s name
—The Covenant Hymnal 119

The foundation of the Psalmbok was laid in 1526 when Olavus Petri published the fust collection of Swedish hymns. There are no extant copies of this pamphlet-like book, but it is believed that there were as many as twelve songs, equally divided between Petri originals and translations from Luther’s first collection, Achtliederbuch (1524). Petri had studied at Wittenberg and came under the influence of Luther and the Reformation. He has been called “the Luther of Sweden” and was a great force in the transition from Catholicism to Lutheranism. The hymnal went through at least three editions. The edition of 1536, of which there are extant copies, contains forty-six songs, eight of which were the work of Olavus. The complete title was Svenska Sånger eller Wisor nu på nytt pretade, forökade, och underen annan skick ä tilforenna utsatte (Swedish songs or hymns newly printed, enlarged, and published in a different form from the preceding one).

One of Petri’s translations appears in the present Covenant Hymnal at number 114—“Now Hail We Our Redeemer.” The original text is erroneously credited to St. Ambrose. It was written by Elisabet Cruciger (c. 1500–1535), the wife of the headmaster at Wittenberg University. There is an interesting story about her. One night she dreamed that she stood in the pulpit of the church in Wittenberg. When she told her husband about the dream, his comment was that perhaps “the good God thinks you are worthy to have your songs sung in church.” She laughed—the thought was too humorous.

Up to that time no song written by a woman had ever been accepted by the church. But the headmaster was right, because her advent song was published in Luther’s 2nd collection, the Erfurt Enchiridion. Our version is a translation of four of the Swedish stanzas by Ernst Olson for the Augustana Hymnal, 1925.

The only other hymn in our present hymnal from this earliest period that comes through Swedish sources is “O Lamb of God Most Holy” (519). It appears as a part of the Communion Services in The Covenant Book of Worship. The author, Nikolaus Decius, was a German monk who was converted to Lutheranism. He organized a chorus to lead singing when the Lutheran Order of Service was instituted. In 1526 Decius became pastor of the Church of St. Nicholas. He was constantly opposed by the Catholic Church, and it was rumored that his death was the result of poisoning by those who had not forgiven his defection. Our hymn is a translation by Olof Olsson of the Swedish version, which may have been done by Petri. Olsson, a friend of C.J. Nyvall, came to the United States with a group of Swedish pioneers who settled in the Smoky River region in Kansas. A congregation was organized in Lindsborg with Olsson as pastor. He later became a professor at Augustana Theological Seminary, and from 1891 until his death he was the president of Augustana College and Seminary. He translated several Swedish hymns and was one of the leaders in producing Augustana’s first English hymnal in 1901.

It should be noted that up to the time of the Reformation the people did not participate in congregational singing. The singing in the mass and on festive occasions was in Latin and was left to the choirs and clergy. Martin Luther produced Christian hymns in the vernacular and encouraged the people to participate. Olavus Petri did for the Church in Sweden what Luther had done in Germany.