Amish author Benuel Blank once wrote that the Ausbund, the centuries-old Anabaptist hymnal, is “not to be considered a holy book like the Bible”, but that it has nonetheless been very influential for Amish and their spiritual kin.
Passing along a description of the book, Blank calls it “music for the soul, rather than music for the ear”. In use since the 1500s, the Ausbund continues to play an essential role in Amish church, providing hymns to both open and close Sunday services.
Merlyn Yoder is a member of an Amish church in northern Indiana. I asked him to share some thoughts on the Ausbund with us today. Merlyn explains how he first learned to sing from the Ausbund, and how the book has come to have special importance in his life and faith.
What the Ausbund means to me
The Ausbund. That little black book with about 900 pages. The book we sing from in church. What is it? Who wrote it? Why do we use it? We have always used it as long as I remember. My grandparents sang from it and so did their grandparents. Why should we use anything else?
I remember as a boy I’d page through that book in church. If I counted the several blank pages I would get just over 900. I couldn’t read most of it. I went to the public school and German was introduced in 5th and 8th grade, but not in depth.
When I started the 18-week process of joining our church as a member, I would follow along with the singing (I am not a natural singer). As time went on, I began to help. This taught me German pronunciation. Singing with a group was okay but singing by myself was like jumping into deep water and not knowing how to swim. In our church district we have an informal practice session every two weeks. After our marriage I made a concentrated effort to go. I have made progress.
I now know the tunes our district uses fairly well. Different tunes that we use throughout the year stir up specific emotions. Wedding tunes bring joy, the wishing of a blessed life, and the anticipation of the noon meal and socializing. One tune we always use in spring reminds me of the soft south wind, birds singing, dandelions, and the first bumblebees, even when used at other times. Some tunes recall vague memories of being in church at various homes as a boy.
As with many things, if you put in more effort the rewards are greater. In recent years I have been exploring some of the lesser-known hymns. I have discovered quite a few stories of martyr deaths. There are a few Bible stories such as Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Several of the Psalms have been reworked to a singable meter.
The authors were often but not always severely persecuted and executed. This begs the question: Did God have a plan for our people today? This little book was one of the fruits of their great sufferings. It has survived all these centuries, which is proof enough to me that God’s blessing rests upon it. We owe it to our God and forefathers in faith to continue using this book so their sufferings and prayers were not in vain.
While not nearly everyone is as enthusiastic about Ausbund research as I am, there is still ample interest in passing our tunes to the next generation. I am thankful to live where the use of this book is firmly in place for the foreseeable future.
Merlyn, his wife, and six children live in northern Indiana. He has a job in the RV industry and his hobbies include woodworking, working on engines, beekeeping, orcharding, and history – especially the study of the Ausbund.
Learn more about the Ausbund here.
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