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Story Magazine

Fall 2011

Hymnal companion connects worshipers with timeless hymns

by Christine Hallenbeck Ask, M.Div. '15

In June 2006, Paul Westermeyer, professor of church music, sat among fellow seminary worship faculty at an Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal introduction training event.

During a question-and-answer session, Westermeyer asked, "Will there be a hymnal companion?"

Westermeyer was answered with another question: "Do you want to do it?"

One year-long sabbatical and countless phone calls and emails later, Westermeyer had authored Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Augsburg Fortress, 2010).

"The intent was to give the provenance, context and character of each text and tune," Westermeyer said.

It was a daunting task for 654 hymns. "You never know everything you want to know," Westermeyer said. "You give the reader a sense. And then, you quit."

Through this project, the lifelong church musician gained a deeper understanding of hymnals and their contributors as timeless embodiments of the church and its people.

"I'm having contact with the whole history of the baptized," Westermeyer thought as he researched text and tune writers. "To do this is an incredible privilege. [My job was to] communicate so the church gets a glimpse of these people."

Whether church musician or lay member, through Westermeyer's work worshippers sing and commune with Christians from all ages.

"It is a mark of a good hymn that you don't have to know the back story to sing it heartily and meaningfully," said Martin Seltz, publisher of worship and music for Augsburg Fortress and author of the Hymnal Companion's foreword. "But knowing at least some of the stories helps connect us in powerful ways to our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in the faith."

While the Hymnal Companion provides that historical fellowship, it also connects today's worship experience to the broad life and contexts of the church. "Writing this book confirmed for me that the music and poetry of the church are its sounding form," Westermeyer said. "They relate to everything."

To order a copy of Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, visit

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