From D. G. Hart:
Worship services themselves made modest accommodations to the American
world. English services were introduced alongside the Dutch only at the
end of World War I, and against the will of even the progressive
Johannes Groen. The singing of hymns, as opposed to exclusive psalmody,
had been a major grievance of the 1834 Secession in the Netherlands,
but the practice tended to come along with English services. The CRC’s
1914 Psalter Hymnal limited hymns to an obscure, heavily didactic
Presbyterian collection calibrated to the fifty-two Lord’s Days of the
Heidelberg Catechism. In 1934 the denomination published a more
extensive Psalter, including 141 hymns next to 327 Psalm settings, the
former selected according to “doctrinal soundness, New Testament
character, dignity, and depth of devotional spirit, and clearness and
beauty of expression.” None had the slightest odor of Arminianism. At
the same time, leaders tried to impose a uniform order of worship across
the denomination, a movement that Eastern Avenue resisted because of
the “formalism” of some of the new order’s prescriptions: recitation of
the Apostles’ Creed, reading of the Decalogue, and a service of
confession and absolution. The same reform allowed choirs to take part
in worship, another “American” gesture that Eastern had long suspected.
They did encourage vocal and instrumental ensembles but had these
perform after services. The church year was not organized by liturgical
seasons but by preaching through the Catechism. Baptisms (once a
month) far outnumbered celebrations of the Lord’s Supper (once a
quarter), but profession of faith — normatively in one’s late teens —
overshadowed them both. Groen’s pastorate averaged two a week.
(James Bratt, “Rites of the Tribes: Two Protestant Congregations in a Twentieth-Century City,” 149-150)
I wandered upon these words from James Bratt describing a Christian Reformed congregation in Grand Rapids (Dutch Reformed as we used to know them) and was immediately struck by the similarity between what Bratt recorded and my own home congregation, a German speaking Lutheran parish of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, loosely connected to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod but not a member during the same time period.
The German heritage of Lutherans was not merely cultural. The language of the faith and the dialect of worship were deeply ingrained in German. The switch to English was not merely the choice of one linguistic form over another. In my own parish, the pastor read sermons from the Concordia Pulpit for months until he felt he could preach passably in English after preaching so confidently and comfortably in German. At the same time, the chanting of the pastor that was once second nature stopped as he tried on his English singing voice. For him it did not return and would await another generation or two of pastors whose primary language was English before chanting would appear again. By then it was deemed foreign to their worship experience and feared to be Roman Catholic. The catechism had always been learned in German and when instruction switched to English it meant that parent and child were brought up in a distinctly different sounding culture which, on the exterior at least, seemed similar. It was and it was not.
More importantly, the switch to English opened up all sorts of things to a congregation whose language for God had been exclusively German. Hymns well known to those outside the little German congregation in the midst of a cornfield suddenly were sneaking into Lutheran service. It might come as a surprise to many today that the beloved old hymnal 1941 (THE Lutheran Hymnal) was condemned by many for introducing substandard hymns often called Methodist as a derogatory acknowledgement that these were not the sturdy chorales of old. In my own congregation there were NO hymnals in the pews until 1972 when a red cover edition of TLH was purchased, pew racks installed, and people stopped bringing them from home. Yes, they stopped carrying their hymnal from home to church on Sunday morning and with it the hymnal began gradually to disappear from the home and from its use as a prayer book and devotional resource for the family (as well as their songbook of faith).
In the end, English was not just a change of vocabulary but a cultural change. It signaled both a new willingness to embrace the American culture as well as a new vulnerability to that culture and its prevailing norms, views, and prejudices. What this author found in a small Conservative Reformed body was also true of a growing Confessional Lutheran body about the same time. In the end we find it all sort of parochial and funny (both in a humorous and slightly embarrassing way). It may seem quaint but it represented a new chapter in a church where its members would no longer be generally united in culture and language as well as faith. We have struggled with that transition. Missouri's history with the Statement of the 44 and the split 30 years later all have something to do with the difficult and uneven embrace of things American for a church body that we once confident that no language (except perhaps Latin) was better fit for theology and worship than German. It is something to think about as this same church body struggles in a tension between culture and faith, the world around us and our own world of creed, confession, and cultus.