If you’re in church on a Sunday morning, are you hoping for fast, upbeat music or something slow and thoughtful? The latest music by contemporary Christian artists or the hymns of Charles Wesley or Fanny Crosby?
My forays into writing historical Amish stories have taken me into the traditional Amish songbook—the Ausbund. Still in use in Amish congregations, many of the Ausbund hymns date back to the middle of the sixteenth century and were written by men imprisoned because they held to Anabaptist theology rather than the prevailing Roman Catholic beliefs. Words to the hymns reflect that in the century of their origin, the hymn writers were persecuted, even martyred. Other hymnals were published during that era, but the Ausbund is distinguished because it has been in continuous use all these centuries, surviving from an era of more general use to today’s Amish congregations.
The Ausbund didn’t show any notes, only the lengthy verses exhorting singers to be faithful and steadfast in times of suffering, even if suffering should lead to death. Worshipers learned the tunes traditionally used with various sets of words. In more recent years, there have been some attempts to provide notation to the traditional tunes that have been handed down through the generations for centuries.
In addition to the words being long—as many as seventeen stanzas was not unusual—the tunes are laboriously slow compared to the pace of the Christian hymns or worship songs we know today. Some of them had as many as nine notes for a single syllable! (If you’re interested in more about the history of Amish hymns, here’s an interesting link.)
I’m a hymn person, no doubt about it. Perhaps that the reason I find myself drawn to including Ausbund hymns in my historical novels.
I won’t try to give you seventeen stanzas! But here’s a flavoring of the kind of suffering and martyrdom hymns written nearly five hundred years ago. This one is by Leonhard Schiemer.
“We are scattered like sheep without a shepherd. We have left our houses and lands and have become like owls of the night, like game birds. We sneak about in the forest. Men track us down with dogs, then lead us like lambs back to town. There they put us on display and say we are the cause of an uproar. We are counted like sheep for slaughter. They call us heretics and deceivers …
“Oh Lord, no tribulation is so great that it can draw us away from you. … Glory, triumph and honour are yours from now into eternity. Your righteousness is always blessed by the people who gather in your name. You will come again to judge the earth!”
How about you? What are some of your favorite hymns or worship songs? And how fast do you like to sing them?
Olivia Newport lives in Colorado where daylilies grow as tall as she is. Her Amish novels include the Valley of Choice series and four titles under the banner of Amish Turns of Times, including her latest release, Hope in the Land.