The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund: Some Beautiful Christian Songs Composed and Sung in the Prison at Passau

Ken Nafziger

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 1 (Winter 2005)

Robert A. Riall (trans.), Galen A. Peters (ed.). The Earliest Hymns of the Ausbund: Some Beautiful Christian Songs Composed and Sung in the Prison at Passau. Published in 1564. Pandora Press, 2003.

In his preface to this book, C. Arnold Snyder writes, “There is no reason why the hymn texts should not be considered primary sources on a par with Anabaptist pamphlets, letters, and prison confessions, and studied in that light.” He laments a historical lack of interest in the study of this sixteenth-century Anabaptist hymnal, and then points out that “Riall’s translation of the Passau hymns goes a good distance in remedying this situation” (10-11). This volume in the Anabaptist Texts in Translation series offers a great service in making this important material so attractively available.

Anabaptists and Mennonites have had a long history with singing. It is entirely appropriate that the contents and history of the Ausbund be more fully known, for both a knowledge of what our forebears sang and a wider understanding of the significance of song in the spread of a radical religious movement.

In his introduction to the translations, Robert Riall describes the colorful and long history of the Ausbund from its roots through its evolution. Of particular value is his articulation of what he calls the “Message” of the book (30-39). There are four points of certainty he explores as the editorial standard by which hymns were included there: Christ’s External and Internal Word, Holiness, Suffering, and Joy and Resignation. This is useful information applicable, I suspect, well beyond studies in hymnology.

The book is a compendium of translations, remarkably and clearly documented with footnotes, endnotes, Scriptural citations/allusions, and all manner of useful details. The cross-references are helpful to the reader who takes the time to pursue them. Riall, his editor, and the publisher have treated a hymnal that has been used continuously for nearly 450 years with the respect appropriate to an important historical document.

Holding this volume in my hands, perusing it to see what it contained, and imagining how it might be used, it seemed to me that it calls for a companion piece, requiring comparable time and attention to other aspects of the Ausbund. Apparently Riall has done some work with meters and rhyme schemes, but it is omitted here. It ought to be made accessible. Such a companion piece should also explore the musical aspects of the hymnal with the same careful research. Some of this work has been done (cited in the endnote on p.12), but it may well be time for a new look at the hymnal’s musical dimension.

Finally, I found myself wondering if it’s time – perhaps already overdue – that someone (a poet/theologian) re-visit some of these texts and adapt them for modern usage. Our congregational song would be enriched by having available some of these themes that are as unique in modern Christianity as they were when the book first appeared. Perhaps in the garb of music from the time of the Ausbund or in newer musical attire, we could continue to give voice to those life-giving “beautiful Christian songs” that sustained prisoners and set them free. This is certainly no new idea, but one might hope that new energy turned loose by the appearance of Riall’s volume will catch the imagination of those who make songs for us to sing.

Ken Nafziger, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA