Martin Luther and the pipe organ in worship (or not).

This past weekend, as I was beginning to practice my organ repertoire for this Reformation Sunday, I was reminded of a masterclass during my undergraduate years in which the instructor informed us of Luther’s statement about the organ:

“The organ in worship is the sign of Baal.”

Of course, most of us needed an explanation of who/what Baal is, and why this was such a terrible thing.

I encountered this Luther quote several more times during my education and career, and it always rankled, especially those times it was coupled with a follow-up:

“The Roman Catholics borrowed it from the Jews.”

(Sad to say, the anti-Roman, anti-Semitic tone helped boost the quote’s credibility as coming from Luther.)

Moreover, the anti-organ quote seems to run 180 degrees counter to Luther’s generally positive view of music in general, and of using all human industry and skill in praise of God, not to mention his “what is not prohibited is permitted” approach. So, in my own kind of “tribute” to the 500th anniversary, I did a bit of digging.

It did not take long to learn that, like Augustine’s supposed quote “The one who sings [well] prays twice,” this quote is found in no primary Luther source. I found a rather succinct summary that debunks it.

My Bach partita in a few weeks will seem just a bit more exquisite!


  1. Of course there is nothing worse than a bad organist. I wonder if that might be the origin of the quote. But, if that were an actual quote, how could the proliferation of chorale preludes based on Ein ‘Feste Burg be explained? I am playing three settings (Scheidt, Hanff, & Walcha) on Reformation Sunday, at Edgebrook Lutheran Church.

  2. Nasty words. True, the organ’s development in Luther’s time supported its prime use: playing alternatim versets. I think there are some words of disdain for organists who played bawdy tunes in their versets, so his attitude toward the organ was neutral at best. Fortunately Luther’s organic dismissal did not win out over time, so we get the tradition that Joseph Burgio refers to, which is a POST Luther development of the organ, its literature, and function, even [gasp] the idea of it leading congregational song. Remember that playing chorales with assembly is an idea that only developed slowly over the course of the 17th century, and even in Bach’s time chorales were sung unaccompanied in Leipzig.

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