An ancient Anabaptist hymnal
The Ausbund is a very important book for the Amish. This hymnal contains centuries-old songs originating with Anabaptist captives held at the Oberhaus castle prison in Passau, located in present-day southeastern Germany.
The Ausbund hymnbook, used by the early Anabaptist Swiss Brethren, is the oldest songbook in the world still in continuous use.
First printed in the year 1564, the Ausbund is used regularly in the Amish churches of today.
It has become an Anabaptist classic, and well over a hundred thousand have been printed here in America. It has gone through at least 60 known printings.
About ten thousand Ausbunds are printed every year, most of them going into use in the plain churches. In an Amish church district, except for the church benches, there is very little property owned jointly by all the church members, except the hymnbooks. Some small districts may own less than 30 books, while the larger ones may own over a hundred (Amazing Story of the Ausbund p. 1).
The songs of the Ausbund are an important reminder of the suffering and faith of Anabaptist ancestors, an example for Amish and other Anabaptist peoples who use the book today. Blank notes that the Ausbund is “not to be considered a holy book like the Bible”, but one which has nonetheless had an immense influence on Amish and other Anabaptists (p. 3).
The Ausbund in Amish church
When you enter Amish church service, Ausbunds are already set out on the benches for congregants. Amish church begins with singing lasting from 25-30 minutes or longer (as in more conservative churches or during the period of pre-baptismal instruction when ministers will spend time with baptismal candidates at the beginning of church services). After church is over they are collected and travel to the next home via the Amish church wagon, which also carries church benches.
Ausbunds do not contain musical notes, and tunes are learned and passed down from one generation to the next. A song leader sings the opening notes of each line, after which the rest of the congregation joins in. Hymns are very slow with drawn-out notes.
As Blank explains, “the many generations of people singing from it over these hundreds of years have learned the tunes by ear. The tunes that are used have no answering chorus. It is “music for the soul, rather than music for the ear,” as our slow tunes have sometimes been described” (p. 50).
Creating the Ausbund
The early Anabaptists would have appreciated such music for the soul, as they were widely persecuted for their beliefs, a maltreatment which often included imprisonment, torture and execution. The core songs of the Ausbund were formulated by 53 Anabaptist prisoners held in the dungeon at the castle at Passau over the years 1535-1540. The hymns they created and sung were adapted from a number of sources, including the Lord’s Prayer, Old Testament Psalms, and the Sermon on the Mount, using already-existing tunes (pp. 31-32).
The Ausbund has been added to and expanded over the years, and consists of three distinct parts (p. 62). As one might expect, tunes have become altered over the course of passing them down over many years and among many different groups:
The slow tunes of the Ausbund songs have most certainly been changed somewhat over the 450 years since the Passau prisoners sang them to the poems they composed. They do vary from one plain church group to another, and as different plain-people settlements become established, it can be expected that the song tunes will soon begin to develop slight variations. Throughout the course of many generations, the tunes have slowly evolved into an almost infinite number of slight changes (p. 50).
The best known hymn is Das Loblied, or “Hymn of Praise”. The Loblied is the second song sung in all Amish church services. It is hymn # 131 in the Ausbund. Here is an English translation (source):
1. O Lord Father, we bless thy name,
Thy love and thy goodness praise;
That thou, O Lord, so graciously
Have been to us always.
Thou hast brought us together, O Lord,
To be admonished through thy word.
Bestow on us thy grace.
2. O may thy servant be endowed
With wisdom from on high,
To preach thy word with truth and power,
Thy name to glorify.
Which needful is to they own praise,
Give hunger for thy word always,
This should be our desire.
3. Put wisdom in our hearts while here
On earth thy will be known,
They word through grace to understand
What thou would have us to do.
To live in righteousness, O Lord,
Submissive to thy word,
That all our vows prove true.
4. Thine only be the glory, O Lord,
Likeness all might and power.
That we praise thee in our assembly
And feel grateful every hour.
With all our hearts we pray,
Wilt thou be with us every day
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Amish churches can differ in many ways, but the Loblied‘s position as the second song sung in every church service is one unifying aspect which stretches over all of North America’s 1,900+ Amish congregations. Writing of the Lancaster County Amish, Donald Kraybill notes that “on a given Sunday morning, all the congregations holding services across the settlement are singing the same song at roughly the same time, an experience one member described as giving a beautiful feeling of unity among the churches” (The Riddle of Amish Culture p. 123).
A heritage of song
If you’d like to learn more about this important songbook, The Amazing Story of the Ausbund is a good place to start. Benuel Blank writes in the concluding pages of his book:
Let us thank God for our heritage of song. Today’s descendants in faith of the Anabaptists of the 1500s are singing songs in settings unbelievably different from the dire surroundings in which many of the songs were composed.
Even though their singing voices were often stifled by martyrs’ deaths, congregational singing has always been a traditional part of Anabaptist worship. Although there have been some denominations of the Christian church who objected to hymnbooks and prayer books on the grounds that all singing and praying should always come from the heart and not from a book, the Anabaptists became a people of song.
The conservative part of Anabaptism still believes in worshiping God in simplicity, with human voices blending together in sounds of praise, rather than listening to a well-trained choir or to the organ music in a large and costly church cathedral; quite a contrast for worshiping the Savior of the world born in a lowly manger. Their sanctuaries of worship are their homes, barns, sheds and shops (p. 119).