WELS Hymnal Project

Project Blog

Insights, analysis, techniques, opinions, and experiences from the team behind the WELS Hymnal Project.

During the past few months we've been drawing attention to a handful of hymns that many people would count among their favorites. Of course, not every hymn worthy of our reflection shows up near the top of a list of people's favorites. One such hymn is Martin Franzmann's, "O God, O Lord of Heaven and Earth" (Christian Worship #400).

We are pleased to be able to post here a devotional article about that hymn, written by Professor Emeritus Theodore Hartwig. In the author's own words, this hymn is like "a treasure hidden in a field." It may not be sung nearly as often as "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" or "Jerusalem the Golden." However, as the author puts it, it beautifully succeeds in "capturing the plight in today’s world while also enunciating the essence of the imperishable Gospel of Jesus Christ."

We thank Professor Hartwig for his article. If it succeeds in leading you to read and reflect on the words of the hymn it highlights, it will be well worth your time.

Dear friends in Christ,

I often have to remind myself that not everyone is as familiar with what’s going on with the hymnal project as I am. As I write this winter update in December 2015, I have been doing the full time work of a project director for three years. And yet, even our own hymnal project subcommittees have not been “at it” for all that long. An Executive Committee first met face to face in September 2013. Thereafter, other project committees began to meet online or in person (Scripture Committee – November 2013; Psalmody, Rites, Communication, and Technology Committees – January 2014; Hymnody Committee first face to face meeting – May 2014). While the hymnal project website launched in July 2013, it didn’t contain a great deal of information in those early days before the committees had even met for the first time.

So, while I have been fully engaged in this work for three years, the hymnal project subcommittees have only been fully functional themselves for approximately eighteen to twenty-four months. It took a while for the committees to become orientated to the work and to lay the groundwork for all that they would be doing.

Now, however, all the subcommittees are fully engaged. We have been mapping out a timeline which will allow them to cover all the work necessary to release a new hymnal and its attendant resources somewhere in the early 2020s. (We’re not yet at the point of knowing a firm release date.)

Thus, with the committees just beginning to churn out tangible materials, we readily recognize that not everyone in our church body has a clear grasp of where things stand. At this point we wouldn’t expect that to be the case for a hymnal which is projected to be released more than half a decade from now. On the other hand, we do want to bring people along as best we can in providing information relative to the status of the work that’s being done.

The Communications Committee completed four national surveys in calendar year 2014. Those surveyed were pastors, teachers and Sunday School teachers, musicians, and all WELS members. The results have been processed and consulted repeatedly as the project subcommittees have set about their work. A review of each week’s appointed scripture lessons, hymn and psalm choices, and other worship information, slated to be covered over three years and accelerated to be wrapped up in two years, has also now been completed. This brings the Communication Committee to the point of working with focus groups around the country to field test individual items on which the other subcommittees wish to receive feedback. Thanks to all who have (and who yet will) provide this very important and helpful information.

Active since the summer of 2013, the project website has brought us over 700 submissions of individual items, the majority of which have been hymns. Individual comments received through the website now number over a thousand. All comments and submissions have been reviewed and archived. Many comments and submissions also make their way into a pipeline which has been set up as a way for subcommittees to treat and potentially act on the materials and comments received.

The Scripture Committee has spent countless hours creating first drafts of a church year calendar and a revised lectionary (three-year set of scripture readings for use in public worship; cf. Christian Worship, pp. 162-166). This committee has responded to the preference of our church body’s pastors by providing a lectionary draft which has a unified theme across all three lessons appointed for the Sundays and festivals. The lectionary is being and will continue to be reviewed and critiqued on a number of different levels over the next several years.

On a regular and frequent basis, the Psalmody Committee now reviews upwards of twenty to thirty musical settings of a particular psalm. The committee is on a path toward providing not only approximately seventy psalm settings for the front pages of the next hymnal (similar to Christian Worship, pp. 64-122) but also textual and musical presentations of all 150 psalms in an additional, self-standing volume (called a Psalter). As the Christian Worship psalmody format has in so many cases brought back to our congregations regular singing of the psalms, the work of the Psalmody Committee will make many more psalms available for singing (and for personal devotion) in both regular public worship settings and other settings as well (school chapel services; congregational meetings; group devotions; etc.).

The Hymnody Committee has completed a first pass of reviewing all the existing hymns in Christian Worship and Christian Worship Supplement. It will be a few years yet before a “final hymn list” is identified. For now, rankings of hymns give an initial indication of which hymns are slated for inclusion in the next hymnal and which are not. In this regard there will be a fair amount of individual hymns shifting back and forth (inclusion/exclusion) as consideration is given to existing hymns and “new” hymns (new to us as far as being in our hymnal, but both ancient and recent in regard to when they were written). The text and music subcommittees of the Hymnody Committee meet monthly to treat approximately 20 existing hymns a month, and the committee is in the process of compiling a list of hundreds of new hymns for consideration.

The Rites Committee has spent well over a year working on the text and flow of what might most easily be called a “main communion service.” This historic service is very similar to Christian Worship’s Common Service (p. 15) and Christian Worship Supplement’s Divine Service 1 (p. 15). Envisioned for this service are both a new musical setting for the songs of the liturgy (printed in the hymnal), and alternate musical settings for the same service, available electronically. Various services from the current hymnal and supplement which are familiar to WELS worshipers will continue to be available in some form, to insure that when our next hymnal is released, congregations will have continuing access to familiar materials, while also being able to learn (at their own desired pace) musical service settings which are new. The committee will also be working on a service similar to The Service of the Word (Christian Worship, p. 38), and other services such as Morning Praise, Evening Prayer, etc.

We recently added one more committee to work on additional rites, referred to as “Occasional Services.” Pastors especially will be familiar with the current volume, Christian Worship: Occasional Services, which includes rites such as installations, dedications, reception of new members, and the like. We don’t anticipate that all of the services in the current book will need major overhauls, but this work will also allow for a review of language in the book and will allow us to add services that were not included in the current volume (e.g., anniversary of a congregation).

The Technology Committee continues to concentrate on three main areas or resources. A worship service planning application is being pursued. This program will take virtually all of the hymnal materials and make them digitally available for both planning worship services (church calendar based; hymn selection; service selection) and printing service folders. It is too early to promise what such an application might be able to do, but such a software program is a high priority for the committee. Additionally, the research work continues toward making available a personal digital hymnal (as an application for a tablet or phone) and developing a digital framework for musicians (an array of additional musical resources in support of what appears in the hymnal and psalter).

Work on an updated Handbook is in its initial stages. The Handbook provides background information on all of the hymns. An existing single volume called Christian Worship: Manual will most likely become four separate volumes, presenting a broad treatment of all of the hymnal resources, with target audiences of 1) pastors and worship leaders; 2) congregational groups and worship committees; 3) musicians and choirs; and 4) all congregation members.

On a regular sheet of paper, this winter update approaches three pages in length. It reaches all those - but only those - who subscribe to or visit the project website. In connection with field testing materials with focus groups, the Communication Committee also plans to soon release a more detailed report of the specific work of all of the committees. This report will go out through WELS Communications to all congregations. It is our hope that this update and that report will provide fairly comprehensive coverage of the hymnal project work. We remain committed to providing the best public worship resources we can compile, so that Jesus Christ might be proclaimed, believed, and honored.

On behalf of the WELS hymnal project,
Rev. Michael Schultz, director

The poetic device of asking a question is not uncommon. When Elizabeth Barrett Browning posed the rather famous question, “How do I love thee?” she was not intending to leave the question open. Fast on the heels of the question came the answer: “Let me count the ways.”

The poetry of hymns includes any number of examples which use this same device. Frederic Baue’s hymn “What Is This Bread?” (Christian Worship Supplement #742) is reminiscent of catechetical question and answer methodology. The African-American spiritual “Were You There?” (Christian Worship #119) acknowledges that we weren’t there at the crucifixion but places us there in spirit simply by asking the question. Isaac Watts asks, “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?” (The Lutheran Hymnal #445) so that the singer, through all the trials of being a Christian, will know that the answer is, “Yes,” and will pray, “Increase my courage, Lord!” Charles Wesley’s hymn, “And Can It Be,” includes the question, “How can it be that you, my Lord, should die for me?” and provides the answer: “Amazing love!”

So, during the Christmas season, when we sing the question of hymn writer William Dix, “What Child Is This?” (Christian Worship #67), we understand that the stanza is going to unfold the marvelous answer.

What child is this who, laid to rest, on Mary's lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the Son of Mary!

With the current world population, a baby is born every four seconds. In the lesser populated world in which Mary and Joseph lived, the birth frequency rate was undoubtedly a little lower. But still, plenty of babies were being born. Of all of those births the question could be asked, “What child is this?” Of only one of those births—the firstborn son of a virgin, a birth greeted with angel anthems, a birth announced to shepherds—of only one of those births could the answer be given, “This child is Christ the King!”

What is the King of kings doing lying in a manger?

Why lies he in such mean estate where oxen now are feeding?
Good Christians, fear; for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through; the cross he'll bear for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary!

The answer of the hymn is the answer of the scriptures. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). “Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him” (John 19:17-18). “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear” (John 19:34). This particular child wouldn’t be any more precious than any other child born in Bethlehem or anywhere else were he not the God-man whose holy sacrifice removed from the sight of God the sin of the world.

With the child’s identification and mission clearly delineated, the questions fade and the invitation is extended.

So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh; come, peasant, king, to own him.
The King of kings Salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.
Raise, raise the song on high; the virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy, for Christ is born, the babe, the Son of Mary!

The invitation is to believe (“Let loving hearts enthrone him.”), to worship (“Raise, raise the song on high.”), and to rejoice (“Joy, joy for Christ is born.”).

The haunting melody of GREENSLEEVES reaches a highpoint twice in each stanza. In two of three stanzas the melody soars where the answer to the question is being given. “This is Christ the King!” “Nails, spear shall pierce him through.” And in the third stanza, that melodic highpoint fittingly cries out, “Raise the song on high. Joy, for Christ is born.” It is well worth it to take in an extra measure of breath to belt out those phrases that fall on the high notes. Why?

You are reading these words in December, the month during which we celebrate the birth of the King. In this article’s treatment of this hymn, you may not have come across anything that is startlingly new to you. That of itself reminds you of the priceless gifts you’ve been given. The Lord has given you the answers to these questions and the faith that holds them fast. This child is Christ my king. Nails and spear pierced through him in my place. I have a song to raise on high. I have reason to rejoice, for Christ is born for me.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!


Thank you to all those who took the time to share their thoughts on, "Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel." We hope you enjoy hearing a recording of this hymn and seeing some of the comments that we received.

Next week we'll feature another hymn from the list of Fifty Favorite Hymns: "What Child Is This?" (Christian Worship #67).

As a child, I remember my parents having us count down the days to Christmas with an Advent calendar. There was the usual haranguing among siblings over whose turn it was to open that day’s door. But each door revealed something about the coming Savior—an Old Testament reference, a picture of Gabriel, Mary or Joseph, a shepherd or sheep—all leading up to the manger behind the December 25 door. We looked ahead to the celebration of our Savior’s birth by looking back to God’s promises.

The hymn “Oh, Come, Oh, Come, Emmanuel” has us looking forward by looking back. We look back to the Old Testament pictures of the coming Savior: Emmanuel, Root of Jesse, Dayspring, Key of David. The coming Savior will be God with us. He will be descended from the family of King of David. He will be the key that opens the gates of heaven. He will be the light shining in the darkness of this evil world.

This ancient (12th century) and well-loved hymn with its chant-like melody also directs our thoughts forward to what the coming Savior accomplishes for us.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Like the people of Israel in captivity in heathen Babylon, we were enslaved by our own wickedness in this evil world. The blood of the Son of God made flesh is the ransom price to set us free.

Oh, come, O Root of Jesse, free
Your own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell your people save,
And bring them vict’ry o’er the grave.

Jesus has rescued us from the fear of death and the reality of hell by his death and resurrection.

Oh, come, O Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Pain. Suffering. Sadness. Death. They hang over us like a black cloud and can sap the joy out of life. But the good news of our Savior’s coming comforts us and cheers us.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home.
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Even though our sins cause great trouble and would keep heaven closed to us, great David’s greater Son has opened the door to the joys of heaven.

As children, we anticipated the opening of gifts on Christmas. As children of God, we also anticipated the celebration of the Gift in Christmas services. We looked back at the Old Testament promises and saw their fulfillment in the baby laid in Bethlehem’s manger. As we look back to God’s promises and “look back” by singing an ancient Advent hymn, may we look forward and rejoice at what our Savior’s coming has done and won for us.