A Mighty Fortress
“A Mighty Fortress” (aka “Ein feste Burg” in the original German) is a hymn written by Martin Luther around 1527 based on Psalm 46. Although the early details are vague, it was certainly a hymn used by proponents of the Reformation to rouse support for their cause, which is why it has sometimes been referred to as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” Today it continues to be one of the most well-loved hymns among Lutherans and Protestants. It has been translated into English over 70 times, as well as into many other languages.
Two versions of the hymn appear in our hymnal, “Lutheran Service Book” (656 & 657). The former is the “rhythmic” tune and the latter is the “isometric” variant. The rhythmic tune is the highly syncopated version from Martin Luther’s original hymn. “The Lutheran Hymnal” of 1941 uses this rhythmic tune. Around 200 years after the Reformation, the isometric variant developed, which smooths out the rhythm, removing the syncopation. J. S. Bach based his choral on the isometric version. While the isometric tune is more widely used by other Lutherans and Protestants, the original rhythmic tune remains predominant in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.
Although today we often view “A Mighty Fortress” as a militant hymn, one of the earliest copies of the hymn from 1529 labels it as “A Hymn of Comfort,” providing insight into how Luther and his colleagues regarded this hymn. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (Psalm 46:1, 7).