It appears that I've finally been able to get back on track with the Gerhardt Project. My computer woes earlier this summer, and then the immediate responsibilities of the Convention, derailed my progress for a while, but it's moving forward again as of last night. I hope that my nice group of volunteers hasn't disboarded the train in the meantime, as the project depends on the participation of folks with a variety of skills and a willingness to contribute.
The Gerhardt Project began this past spring as the first and most significant phase in a larger grand scheme of mine. Several pursuits over this past year, each developing in some way out of my vocation as a pastor, brought me to an awareness of numerous historic Lutheran hymns that have fallen through the cracks and out of usage. It is often the case that hymns will fall by the wayside in the course of time because they lack the necessary substance and sturdiness to continue serving the Church. However, there are many other truly worthy hymns of salutary character and content that are lost to the Church, due to a variety of circumstances and factors. The transition from German to English, for example, left a lot of great hymns behind.
Introducing the Lutheran Service Book to my congregation this past year, and planning carefully for the deliberate use of its hymn corpus, heightened my awareness and appreciation of our rich heritage of Lutheran hymnody. I have delighted in the wonderful LSB collection, but have also mourned for the hymns that ended up missing in action. The reality is that an official service book and hymnal is bound by various parameters, not least of all the space constraints, which prevent the inclusion of everything worthwhile and significant. Yet, it would be a crying shame if those missing hymns simply end up missing forever hereafter.
Along with the introduction of the LSB, the birth of my son Gerhardt exponentially increased my appreciation for his namesake, the great Lutheran hymnwriter of the seventeenth century, Paul Gerhardt, the sweet singer of Germany. About that same time, I was asked to give a paper on Gerhardt's hymnody, which gave me the opportunity to study the man and his contributions. I have been deeply humbled by the example of his piety and confession of faith, all the more so because of the cross and suffering under which he labored as a Lutheran pastor and hymnwriter. So often, my own faith and hope and confidence have been strengthened and sustained by the Word of God that sings in Gerhardt's hymns. Thus, I have been pleasantly surprised to discover how many more hymns he wrote than I ever realized, and at the same time discouraged that so few of them are readily available for the use of the Church in our day.
The Lutheran Service Book includes sixteen of Paul Gerhardt's hymns, and one more in the electronic edition. Some Lutheran hymnals in our generation have included roughly two dozen (others far fewer). German Lutheran hymnals in this country in the nineteenth century included almost four dozen Gerhardt hymns. Altogether, he appears to have written more than 130. Even taking into account that he will not always have been at the top of his game, and that a percentage of his total output will not necessarily serve the Church so well in our day, nevertheless, many more of his hymns than the 16 or 17 in LSB would be of great blessing and benefit to the Christians of this generation.
Paul Gerhardt's hymnody is simply one example, though a prominent and most important one. In working on my book, For All His Benefits, I've encountered numerous other historic Lutheran hymns that have essentially been lost to us. In many cases, they have never been translated into English; not surprisingly, since the translation of hymnody is an especially challenging work. In other cases, English translations have been done in the past, but without the elegance and poetic qualities to lend themselves to actual use; or else, the translations have become dated with time, without having had the opportunity to implant themselves in the piety of the Church's singing.
Which brings me back to the Gerhardt Project, and my grand scheme for the future. Eventually, what I would like to do is facilitate the gathering together and publication of historic Lutheran hymns, translated into English with skill (by those who have been given such gifts), set to sturdy music (in most cases, the tunes for which they were intended), and thereby made available for the use of the Church. The twofold goal would be, first of all, the opportunity for present usage, and second, an awareness and availability of these hymns when the next Lutheran hymnal project gets underway (in the coming generation).
I've started with the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, because of his importance, second only to Luther himself in the history of Lutheran hymnody; and because there is such a significant corpus of Gerhardt hymns, not huge in number but substantial nonetheless, which can readily be identified and tackled with a clear end in sight. Gerhardt's track record is such that even this initial phase of the grand scheme will already be worthwhile and a satisfying venture for those involved. If nothing else were ever accomplished, the recovery of several dozen hymns by this sweet singer of Germany will be a salutary gift to the Church on earth. To that end, several dozen volunteers have signed up to assist with the project, bringing together pastors and poets, musicians and computer gurus, and people like myself who simply love to sing the truly great hymns of the faith. A few months ago, I offered this group a list of Gerhardt hymns that have never been translated into English (so far as I know), and thus far I have around twenty initial submissions of draft translations for the consideration and constructive criticism of the group.
As of last night, I shared with the Gerhardt Project a list of forty or fifty hymns that have been translated into English in the past, in one place or another, but which are presently missing (in whole or in part) from the Lutheran Service Book. Some of these could simply be resurrected for publication in a supplement of Gerhardt hymns; others will require editing and polish to be useful in our modern English context. But I am excited at the prospect of moving forward with this work. And I am profoundly grateful for the interest and energy of those who are willing to help make it happen. To God alone be all the glory, honor, worship and praise, for Jesus' sake.