Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hymnals of Unionism and Rationalism

A Handbook of Church Music, edited by Carl Halter and Carl Schalk (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1989).

The Lutheran liturgy of 1748 followed the general outlines of historic Lutheran worship as filtered through the healthy pietism of its compilers. The revision of 1786, with its decreasing emphasis on the church year, its greater informality, and its emphasis on extempore prayer, was typical of the direction the future would bring. The “liturgical” part of the service was shortened in order that the sermon might receive more time. All these changes were indicative of a pietism increasingly divorced from a confessional Lutheran practice.

But two other forces in the early 1800s were to have even greater impact on the worship life of American Lutheranism: unionism and rationalism. The impact of these developing movements was to lead to a marked toning down and relaxation of sound Lutheran worship practices.

Unionism developed in part because of a spirit of religious indifference nourished by the inroads of rationalism, in part because it was often the line of least resistance, but also because it often appeared to be the most prudent course in the cause of a common evangelism. In Pennsylvania the trend was toward union with Reformed churches; in New York toward union with Episcopalians.

The attraction between Lutheran and Reformed churches in the early 1800s was accentuated by a number of circumstances. In Prussia, homeland of many German Americans, union was the official policy between Lutherans and the Reformed. In Germany, Frederick Wilhelm III was preparing to proclaim the Prussian Union. In America, many Lutheran, Reformed, and other Protestant churches were making joint plans to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Reformation.

In addition, Lutheran and Reformed churches in America often shared the same church building, a fact attested to by many “Union” churches still dotting the rural countryside in Pennsylvania. Given such circumstances, the request for a common worship materials could not be far behind. Hardly a decade after its formation as the second Lutheran synod in America, the New York Ministerium took note of the “intimate relation between English Episcopal and Lutheran churches, the identity of doctrine, and the near approach of their discipline,” and efforts were begun — though never completed — looking toward the eventual union of the two churches. The tide of opinion favoring at the least a variety of united endeavors, and, as some hoped, union, was too great to be ignored.

Likewise, rationalism affected America as a result of close contact between America and France in the Revolutionary period. It had found its way into German universities, even into Halle, and the American church was not to escape its influence. As early as 1792, for example, the Pennsylvania Ministerium had deleted all reference to the Lutheran Confessions from its constitution. In 1803 the constitution of the North Carolina Synod, the third Lutheran synod to be organized in North America, made no reference either to the Lutheran Confessions or to Lutheranism. In 1807 the New York Ministerium elected as its president Rev. Frederick H. Quitman, an avowed disciple of John Semler, the “father of Rationalism” at Halle.

The ideals of unionism and rationalism found embodiment in congregational books of worship among the Lutherans. For unionism it was the Gemeinschaftliche Gesangbuch (“Common Hymnbook”) of 1817, issued “for the use of Lutheran and Reformed congregations in North America”; for rationalism it was A Collection of Hymns, and a liturgy, for the use of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, published in 1814. Both books were widely used in German and English Lutheran congregations that found them compatible with their ideas. . . .

Rationalism sought to bring the forms of Lutheran worship in line with human reason; unionism sought to dilute those forms and practices in order to facilitate organic union. Both forces were, for a time, successful. But both ultimately gave way before a new movement that was to herald a return to confessional concerns.

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