Some hymns on occasion seem almost to compel the congregation to rise to their feet. Some hymns seem to demand the sonorous peeling of the organ. And some hymns (and you'll have your own preferences here), like Martin Luther's powerful "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" ("Hymns," No. 68), seem to me to call for punctuation, at the end of each line, by a 21-gun cannonade.
Whether in English or in German (where we sing three verses), the lines worship God in simple, straightforward, forceful sentences:
A mighty fortress is our God. (Ein feste Burg ist unser God,)
A tower of strength ne'er failing. (Ein gute Wehr und Waffen;)
A helper mighty is our God, (Er hilft uns frei aus aller Not,)
O'er ills of life prevailing. (der uns jetzt hat betroffen.)
He overcometh all. (Der alt böse Feind,)
He saveth from the Fall. (mit Ernst er's jetzt meint;)
His might and pow'r are great. (groβ Macht und viel List)
He all things did create. (sein grausam Rüstung ist.)
And He shall reign forevermore. (Auf Erd' ist nichts sein's Gleichen.)
As missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opening for the first time the beautiful lakeside and mountain-ringed town of Gmunden, Austria, in late 1957, Elder Doyle Kaiser and I experienced the healing, and unifying power of Luther's great hymn.
Our sustained proselytizing efforts and the well-publicized and well-attended weekly lectures we were presenting at the See Villa, a lakeside Gasthaus, attracted the attention of the local Lutheran Pfarrer, who apparently told his congregation that allowing these two young Americans in their home was tantamount to inviting the devil to dinner.
After hearing about the pastor's sermon from several people, we determined to confront the minister and set him straight — to beard the lion in his den. Brash, indignant, full of spiritual confidence, and impelled by righteous purpose — and no doubt by the feeling that we were the LDS Church's mid-20th century versions of Parley P. Pratt and Wilford Woodruff — we knocked on the Pfarrhaus door. The minister's wife, recognizing us and bristling with hostility, inquired of her husband and then invited us two young devils to meet the minister, who motioned for us to sit down.
I saw at once that he was a good man, seasoned in his ministry, sincere in his belief in Jesus Christ, and indignant at what he saw as our wolfish harassment of his flock. He immediately pointed out that we were teachers of a false religion and launched an attack on Mormon teachings and practices. Because it was so evident that he had misunderstood both, we began to defend Mormonism with scriptures, with which we were well armed.
So began a 30-minute or so scripture bash and heated debate which, despite our attempts to keep civil and reasonable, warmed from simmer to hot to boil and ended when, after I had made what seemed to me a telling point (such points are always futile in a religious argument), he suddenly stood up and terminated our visit, insisting that we leave.
Standing up, I panicked. "What have we done?" I thought. "We have come here to engage in a friendly discussion, to clarify Mormon teachings, to make friends with an apparent enemy. Now we have made it worse. Help me, O Lord," I cried in my soul, "to turn this situation around, to bring us to harmony."
But I had no hope that we could accomplish any good. We had failed.
Putting on our coats, we moved to the small front hallway in which stood a small foot-pumped organ, a Harmonium, on the music stand of which sat a hymnal, opened to the hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott," ("A Mighty Fortress is Our God") by Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism and father of the Lutheran Church.
Pointing at the hymn, I said, "We may have our differences, Herr Pfarrer, but we agree on one thing: Martin Luther wrote wonderful hymns."
Astonished, the minister said, "Do you know Martin Luther?"
"We sing that hymn often in our church," I said.
He smiled guardedly, and, seeming to test us, he motioned to his wife and said, "Let's sing 'Ein feste Burg."
So we did. Elder Kaiser, Elder Cracroft, and the good reverend sang, auf Deutsch, from memory (Elder Kaiser and I had recently sung it in our two-man Sunday services), "Ein feste Burg."
Before we began the second verse, I interrupted: "There is one thing lacking here: at the end of each stanza we should fire off three cannon shots to our God — 'A mighty fortress is our God' — boom, boom, boom" — and I imitated (very well, I think) the sound of a cannonade (ein Kanonenschuss).
Whereupon the minister, our erstwhile combatant, laughed out loud at my enthusiasm, and we sang the verse over again, complete with cannonade.
At the end, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "I have been wrong about you. Anyone who loves Martin Luther and his hymn can't be all bad."
"That's right," I responded, and then quoted some lines I had recently memorized from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German Shakespeare, whose complete works I had purchased during the previous summer and had been browsing: "Wo man singen hört, dort lässt dich ruhig: nieder, denn schlechte Leute kennen keine Lieder. "("Where you hear (people) singing, there you may feel at ease, for bad people do not know how to sing.")
"Goethe was right, as usual," he said, and squeezed my shoulder with some affection.
We shook hands with his wife and with him, thanked him for his time, and left, smiling.
We went back to sharing the gospel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among the people of Gmunden, with some modest success. We attended and enjoyed at least two Sunday evening musical events at the local Lutheran Church, waving to our many contacts, who must have wondered about devils in their midst.
We never saw the pastor and his wife again. And we never again heard of any anti-Mormon sermons by the Lutheran minister in Gmunden.
Blessed by the intervention of the "mighty fortress, "tower of strength" and "helper mighty" who "is our God," Elder Kaiser and I did as Wilford Woodruff would have done: "We went on our way rejoicing."
The late Richard H. Cracroft was a Brigham Young University English professor emeritus and served in various ward and stake callings. He was 76 when he died in September 2012.
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