Ausbund (Auss Bundt) oldest hymnbook of the Swiss Brethren, and still today in use by the Amish in North America. In its final form it comprises more than 800 pages (hence called Das dicke Buch). Through the fine research of Rudolf Wolkan (1903) we are well informed regarding its origins. The nucleus of the book (now part II beginning with hymn No. 81) consists of 51 hymns written by a number of Anabaptists (those called Philippites) in the dungeons of the castle of Passau on the Danube (Bavaria) where they lay imprisoned between 1535 and 1540, many of them later martyred. Twelve of these hymns were written by Hans Betz who died in 1537 in prison, and 11 by Michael Schneider, the leader of the group. (Wolkan was able to identify most of the otherwise unknown writers.) The oldest print of this part, entitled Etliche schöne christliche Gesäng wie dieselbigen zu Passau von den Schweizer Brüdern in der Gefenknus im Schloss durch göttliche Gnade gedicht und gesungen warden. Ps. 139, bears the printing year 1564. (Only known copy is in the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College.) This booklet must have had wide circulation since at the Frankental colloquium, 1571, it was quoted by the opponents of the Brethren. In 1583, a much enlarged edition was brought out, again for the Swiss Brethren (most likely those of the Rhineland), which for the first time bears the title Ausbund (paragon), Etliche schöner Christlicher Lieder, etc. Allen und jeden Christen, welcher Religion sie auch sehen, unpartheylich und fast nützlich zu brauchen. This edition had 130 hymns, 80 more than the previous edition. Later prints added a few more (up to 137 in Europe, up to 140 in American editions, among these additions also the famous "Haslibacher Lied,"). All in all there are 11 known European editions and many editions in America (latest in the 1990s). The earlier European editions point to Cologne, Rhineland, as likely place of publication (16th and 17th centuries), while Basel and Strasbourg become the new centers for the 18th and 19th century publications; the last European edition is signed Basel, 1838. Then the book came into disuse in Europe, to be replaced by more recent hymnals. In America the first edition was printed at Christopher Saur's Germantown press in 1742, most likely prompted by Bishop Henry Funck (details in H. S. Bender, Two centuries, and J. C. Wenger's History of the Franconia Mennonites). Among the Swiss Mennonites in Pennsylvania the book was in use throughout the 18th century. But the two new hymnals, Die Kleine Geistliche Harfe of 1803 and the Unpartheyisches Gesangbuch of 1804, both of Eastern Pennsylvania origin, replaced the Ausbund which from now on was exclusively used by the Amish. All editions are nearly identical, thus preserving the old 16th century flavor through the ages. It is undoubtedly the oldest hymnbook in continuous use in any Christian church anywhere in the world.
The hymns, mainly those of the second (older) part, represent very characteristically the spirit of 16th century Anabaptism (Swiss Brethren), namely, the conviction that their church is a "suffering church" in a relentless world, and that martyrdom is the fate of earnest Christians everywhere. The dominant tone is one of great sorrow, deep loneliness, and protest against a world of wickedness. Yet there is no despair but rather a note of triumph: God will not forsake His own. Among the best-known hymns is No. 131: "O Gott Vater, wir loben Dich und deine Güte preisen," still sung today by the Amish at the beginning of every worship service. According to Wolkan, Lieder, this hymn goes back to Leenaert Clock of Holland, 1625, but it fits beautifully into the context and prevailing spirit.
The first hymn in the collection comes from Sebastian Franck, who was by no means an Anabaptist but whose song fittingly introduces the whole group: "This first hymn teaches us how the Christians in spirit and truth should sing, pray, and give praise in Psalms." No. 2 is a metrical version of the Athanasian creed; Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8 were written by Georg Blaurock, Felix Manz, Michael Sattler, and Hans Hut respectively, all martyred at the very outset of the Anabaptist movement. Other martyr hymns are by Leonhard Schiemer, Hans Schlaffer, George Blaurock, and Hans Leupold, all victims of the first wave of persecution before 1530. Five hymns are by Hans Büchel, the Swiss brother who was present at the Frankental colloquium. Eleven hymns are of Dutch origin, and another 11 come from North Germany. Five hymns are, strangely enough, borrowed from the Bohemian Brethren. Many hymns contain exposition of some Bible doctrines (baptism, Lord's Supper, feetwashing, even Trinity). No. 57 treats of love ("Die Lieb ist kalt jetzt in der Welt"). Naturally the gloomy outlook on life prevails; e.g., No. 46 (Hans Büchel) has the title "A new Christian hymn of the present terrible latter days in which so many different sects, fanatics and false prophets appear as well as blood-thirsty tyrants." But No. 65 opens with a stanza of joy: "Frölich pfleg ich zu singen Wenn ich solche Freud betracht." While it may be true that most of these hymns, written by men with little poetic genius, are not of a high literary quality, they yet make up for this in sincerity of purpose and the depth of religious conviction.
To us today it seems hardly understandable how some of these very long and cumbersome hymns were sung, sung in worship and also at many other social occasions. Every hymn in the Ausbund has a headline indicating the tune. The Brethren never used notes but assumed that these (popular) tunes are known to all as true folk tunes are. Research has disclosed that most of these tunes were secular ones current during the 16th century, and some are still older. Sometimes the original tune of the popular folk song seems hardly fitting to so serious a hymn (e.g., the martyr's story of a brother is sung to the tune, "There went a maiden with a jug"), but it was the text rather than the tune which mattered. Thanks to the work done by G. P. Jackson (1945-46) we are now fairly well informed about the originals of most of these tunes, some of which can be dated as early as 1506, 1512, etc. One tune is from the 13th century, another from 1394. The hymn, "O Gott Vater, wir loben Dich," is sung to the tune "Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir," which is found to correspond to the secular tune, "Es wollt ein Mägdlein Wasser holen," dated 1534. Today, all the songs are sung very slowly (langsame Weis) which prompted J. W. Yoder to assume a kinship to the Gregorian chant. It seems, however, that Jackson's interpretation comes nearer to truth that in uncontrolled group singing each tune is dragged out, which leads to all kinds of strange ornamentation foreign to the original tune.
As already suggested the Ausbund went through many European editions, all of them without place of publication (until 1809), and naturally without indicating the editors. Hence the subtitle, "Most useful to all Christians of whatever denomination, impartial." Very few copies from the 16th and 17th centuries have been preserved (more in America, fewer in Europe). As late as 1692 the government of Bern, Switzerland, placed the book on the proscribed list and ordered its confiscation when found (Müller, Berner Täufer, 104). All American editions are amplified by two appendices containing the Confessio of Thomas v. Imbroich (1558) and Ein wahrhaftiger Bericht, "The true story of the hardships which the Brethren around Zürich had to suffer for their faith's sake between 1635 and 1645" (a collection of martyr stories). From an other old Anabaptist hymn pamphlet of the 17th century, six "Spiritual Songs" were added ("Tobias war ein frommer Mann," etc.). Ausbund apparently means a "select" selection.
The most thorough discussion in English is found in C. Henry Smith, The Mennonite Immigration to Pennsylvania. Norristown, PA, 1929: 331-42, and 255-57 (there also the tune of "O Gott Vater wir loben Dich," 257).
Bender's discovery and description of the oldest edition of 1564 is reported in Mennonite Quarterly Review 3 (1929): 145-50.
A complete list of the European editions is in Robert Friedmann, Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries. Goshen, 1949: 170 f.
The list of the American editions is in H. S. Bender, Two Centuries of American Mennonite Literature. Goshen, 1929.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 97 f.
Jackson, George P. Musical Quarterly 31 (July 1945): 275-88, where the tunes are reconstructed and identified.
Jackson, George P. "The American Amish Sing Medieval Folk Tunes Today." Southern Folklore Quarterly 10 (June 1946):151-57 (see the thorough review by John Umble in Mennonite Quarterly Review 14 (January 1950): 91-93.
Overholt, Joseph. Theological Themes in the Hymns of the Ausbund. Uniontown, OH: J. Overholt, 1980.
Songs of the Ausbund: History and Translations of Ausbund Hymns. Millersville, OH: Ohio Amish Library, 1988. Translation of a selected number of hymns.
Umble, John. "The Old Order Amish, Their Hymns and Tunes." Journal of American Folklore (January 1939).
Wolkan, Rudolf. Die Lieder der Wiedertäufer. Berlin, 1903: 118 ff., whose research is basic both in clearing up the historical background, in identifying the hymn writers, and in evaluating their work.
Yoder, J. W. Amische Lieder. Huntingdon, PA, 1942 is a transcription of 20 tunes.
Yoder, Paul M. Four Hundred Years with the Ausbund. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1964.
Full Text of the 1815 Edition
Cite This Article
Friedmann, Robert. "Ausbund." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 29 Nov 2015. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ausbund&oldid=102038.
Friedmann, Robert. (1953). Ausbund. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 November 2015, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Ausbund&oldid=102038.
Herald Press website.
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