Friday, August 15, 2014
AMISH RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS - THE TRADITION OF SONG
Here is Part Two in the series on Amish Religious Traditions from the informative Amish News based in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Today the post deals with the traditions of Amish Songs.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to attend an Amish church service can rarely forget the power and simple beauty of Amish hymns, the sound created by 150 people packed into the rooms of a house singing from their special hymnal, the AUSBUND.
Well over 400 years old, the AUSBUND is one of the most famous and important books to the Amish. First published in German in 1564, shortly after the Reformation, it is reputed to be the oldest Protestant hymnal in continuous use. With hymns added over the years, editions today contain nearly 900 pages!
The AUSBUND is important for many reasons. First and foremost is the religious heritage that it preserves. The core of the hymnbook consists of about 50 hymns written mostly by 16th century German Anabaptists, many imprisoned in castle dungeons for their religious beliefs.. These forefathers of the Amish and Mennonites, Anabaptists ("re-baptizers") were so named because they practiced adult rather than infant baptism. Because of their beliefs in the separation of church and state, and pacifism, they were considered radicals and heretics. These Christians, hunted down by both Protestants and Catholics, were usually imprisoned if they did not recant their beliefs. Thousands were tortured and put to death.
As author Paul M. Yoder notes, since many of the hymns were penned by men awaiting the death sentence, "the dominant tone found in most of them is one of great sorrow, deep loneliness, or protest against the world of wickedness which was putting forth every effort to crush the righteous."
The length of some hymns is astonishing. The longest has 35 stanzas of 13 lines each. The second hymn sung is always the same (#131), "Das Loblied," or "hymn of praise." The hymns are sung in German, with no organ or musical accompaniment. Singing is in unison with no harmonizing. It may take as long as fifteen minutes to do three stanzas, and for this reason entire hymns are not always sung. Most of the melodies originated in sacred or secular folk songs and Gregorian chants of the times.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Amish singing is the fact that the hymnal contains no musical notation. These melodies have simply been remembered and passed down from generation to generation!
Being as certain men in the congregation have natural musical talent, they come to learn the melodies over the years and may emerge as one of the song leaders or "vorsingers." When a hymn is sung, one of these men will lead it, and he begins singing each line. Everyone joins in with the second syllable and finishes the line. Amish visiting other states often note the subtle differences in melody, or the varying speeds with which the hymns are sung, a result of the hymns being changed and embellished over hundreds of years.
It seems only fitting to close with some words from one of the martyr hymns...
We alone, a little flock,
The few who still remain,
Are exiles wandering through the land
In sorrow and in pain...
We wander in the forests dark,
With dogs upon our track;
And like the captive, silent lamb
Men bring us, prisoners, back.
They point to us, amid the throng,
And with their taunts offend,
And long to let the sharpened ax
On heretics descend.