When I was a boy in Chester County, Pa., my Old Order Amish family took our turn hosting the district’s Sunday morning worship service on our farm. My father, Elmer Stoltzfus, built a two-story chicken house with a garage and storage area on the lower floor, perfect for church meetings. When the bench wagon arrived on Friday, my brother Aaron and I set up the wooden benches, neatly lined up in rows.
On Sunday morning, several of us boys were assigned to go to the wooden box where the Ausbund hymn books were kept and set them out. There were about 60, so each person would have one nearby.
When the service began, the song leader announced the page number and belted out the first syllable, stretching it up and down, and the entire group joined in a slow, dirge-like chant. It took over 10 minutes to finish the first song. Next was the Lob Lied (Love Song), which we sang every time.
My father was a song leader. As I held the thick book steady for him, I could feel the vibrations of sound on the wooden bench. Looking up at his face, I could see the underside of his black beard and watch his lips form the German words.
Once, we boys got into trouble for playing with the Ausbunds. We stacked them to build towers, bridges and fences. When the elders caught us, we had to return the books to the box. Little did I understand the importance of this songbook.
I attended the Amish church until I was 16, when my parents left the Old Order Amish, joined the Amish Mennonite church and moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York. We no longer sang from the Ausbund on Sunday mornings.
The years passed. I moved to Florida, graduated from Florida State University, got married and had two children. After my son Nic finished college, he came home to work with me in media productions. He started asking questions about my memories of growing up Amish. He wondered about Amish singing. What did it sound like?
Reviving a long-dormant memory, I sang a few stanzas of the Lob Lied. I told him we sang it at every service.
“Do you think the Lob Lied is on YouTube?” Nic asked.
“I doubt it.”
But Nic found it. For the first time in more than 30 years, I heard the dirge-like chant of the Lob Lied. I sat in silence, tears flowing.
Down to the dungeon
In 2018, Nic and I traveled to Germany to research our Stoltzfus genealogy, which we published in German Lutherans to Pennsylvania Amish: The Stoltzfus Family Story. Listening to the Lob Lied had awakened my curiosity about the Ausbund. I wanted to visit the Oberhaus castle in Passau, where most of the hymns were written around 1535.
I emailed the Oberhaus museum’s educational director, Eva Sattlegger, and asked to visit the dungeon where the Anabaptists were imprisoned in 1535.
The Oberhaus castle sits on a hill overlooking the city and rivers below — the Danube, the Inn and the Ilz. Every year, thousands of visitors travel to the 13th-century fortress and museum.
Nic and I climbed the steep hillside walkway to the castle. Sattlegger took us to the dungeon where they thought the Anabaptists might have been held. We followed her down the stone steps of a winding stairway to the dungeon, about 25 by 25 feet.
I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the captives: the long days separated from family, the fear of being burned at the stake. Yet they composed 53 known hymns, songs of worship and encouragement to remain faithful.
In the dungeon, I told Sattlegger about growing up Amish, singing from the Ausbund. She put me in touch with André Rottgeri, a professor at the University of Passau, who was researching the Ausbund. We scheduled a return trip to meet and exchange ideas with others. One who attended was Heinz-Walter Schmitz, retired diocesan church music director in Passau.
I shared a recording of Amish singing No. 105, Nun wolt ich gerne singen (“Now I Desire to Sing Gladly”) composed by Hans Betz, one of the Anabaptists imprisoned in Oberhaus. Schmitz said it sounded like the singers sang in a Swabian dialect, from a region in southwestern Germany.
I passed around my family’s 1834 Ausbund. Schmitz handled it with great care, inspecting the fraktur in the front, the leather binding, the time-worn pages. I gave him a 2017 Ausbund. He told me he never thought he would own or hold an Ausbund.
I asked if the original tunes listed with the songs could be discovered. He thought they could be reconstructed.
Within two years, Schmitz found most of the tunes for the 53 Passau songs. He said the internet made it relatively easy.
“If the Ausbund says, ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’ one cannot take the version that is in the last hymn book,” he said. “You have to take a version from 1540. You take the version by Johann Walter, which Luther knew. This is an authentic melody from the time in which the Anabaptists lived. They had the treasure trove of songs in their ears. My work was just to find a melody printed somewhere on this text in the period, let’s say, from 1510 to 1530.”
Singing in the castle
As Schmitz matched the words to the melodies, we discussed the possibility of a public performance. He chose 14 songs and worked with the staff at Oberhaus Castle to pick a date and location: Oct. 19, 2023, at the castle’s St. George Chapel.
I traveled to Germany for the event with Lloyd Weiler, a Mennonite historian and director of Muddy Creek Farm Library in Ephrata, Pa.
About 40 people gathered in the chapel, including professors from the University of Passau, friends of Schmitz and people interested in this piece of the city’s history.
Schmitz had chosen a local professional baritone, Sebastian Segl, to sing a cappella, just as the prisoners would have done 500 years ago. Wrapped around the songs was fictional narrative loosely based on one of the imprisoned Anabaptists.
I sat in awe as the German lyrics reverberated off the ancient walls decorated with paintings of biblical characters.
It is safe to say that the original tunes Schmitz reconstructed had not been heard at Oberhaus since 1540. One listener said the Holy Spirit must have made it possible for the imprisoned Anabaptists to write the lyrics. We sensed holiness and reverence.
There is still much work to do in research, documenting sources and providing historical documents for future Passau events and sharing the Ausbund story in America.
Schmitz said my visit to Passau sparked a renewed interest in the history of the 1535 Anabaptists in Oberhaus.
The Ausbund journey has been life-changing for many of us. We have rediscovered missing pieces in the history of the Ausbund, shared Anabaptist heritage with others and forged connections between cultures.
A last song for Dad
In my childhood, we sang a lot at home, especially on Sunday evenings around the kitchen table. We sang from the Ausbund, the Church and Sunday School Hymnal and other books. I recall the cadence of Dad’s tenor voice.
In 2019, Dad learned he had bone cancer. A few days after his 90th birthday, he fell and became bedridden. I called and asked if he wanted me to sing a verse from the Lob Lied. Slowly, I sang to him in German:
O Gott Vater, wir loben dich,
Und deine Güte preisen
Die du, O Herr, so gnädiglich,
Un uns neu hast beweisen,
Und hast uns Herr zusammen g’führt,
Uns zu ermahnen durch dein Wort.
Gib uns Genad zu diesem.
O God Father, we praise thee,
And thy kindness glorify,
Which thou, O Lord, so mercifully
To us anew hast shown
And hast us, Lord, together led
Us to admonish through thy word.
Give us grace to this.
This was the last time I spoke to Dad. He passed away the next day.
The rich hymns of the Ausbund have a way of returning, even 500 years later. May the flame of the Ausbund hymns ring true in our hearts, to inspire worship and praise and remind us of our heritage.
Elam Stoltzfus is a researcher of Berks County, Pa., Amish history, Stoltzfus family genealogy and the Passau history of the Ausbund hymns. Retired from broadcast media productions, he attends an LMC congregation and is executive director of the historic Nicholas Stoltzfus Homestead, Wyomissing, Pa.