A History of the Zion’s Harfe

The Zion’s Harp hymnal has cut through a wide swath of time. While it’s true that distribution of the official, bound copies of the book we now recognize commenced only in the middle of the 19th century in Europe, fragments of the hymnal’s contents, both the hymns and the musical composition, date as far back as the 15th century before the inception of the Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517.

The Zion’s Harp, as known today, was first printed during the years 1853-54 on the request of Bro. Samuel H. Froehlich in Switzerland. Up until this time, various booklets and compilations of hymns had been use d in one form or another in the meetings of the Evangelical Baptists.

To obtain a more general understanding of the actual beginning of this beloved and cherished hymnal, one must go back to the early stages of the 19th century.

On November 11, 1764 a little baby girl was born in the Russian town of Riga. This Latvian city today has a population of over 600,000. The girl’s name was Juliane von Kruedener. She was the daughter of Herman von Vietinghoff, a Russian imperial privy councillor, a man of rationalistic views and a leading freemason, and of his wife, Anna Ulrica, a strict Lutheran.

After a fashionable education, she was married at age 17 to Baron von Kruedener on September 23, 1782. He was then the first Russian minister at the court of Courland. The marriage proved to be an unhappy one, since the husband was conscientious and retiring, while the wife was restless, flirtatous, and given to frequenting the cosmopolitan fashion centers of the world.

Her husband died on June 14, 1802. Meanwhile, the Baronness took to the task of writing a novel. It took her two years to complete. It was published in 1804, and was highly regarded. This tended to confirm that she was a very capable individual, well-educated, and talented in the art of communication. Her personality, too, was such that people were easily attracted to her.

She lived a free lifestyle and eventually found herself far from God. During a sojourn in Riga in the summer of 1804, Juliana experienced conversion, an occurrence which nothing in her past life seemed to make probable. Her experience was deep, the change in her life profound. In language we can readily understand, she experienced a "true conversion".

Her repentance, having occurred at the outset of the 19th century, came about at a time in which much theological change and maneuvering still lingered in Europe. It was a time when the Reformed churches were continuing to be threatened by "pietistic" and "anabaptist" groups, who were opposed to a dead orthodoxy. Essentially, the authority and influence of the Protestant State Churches were on the wane - they had been since the early 17th century.

Replacing them, to a degree, was the further development of the "free church", which among other things challenged the concept of the union of church and state. The free church also encouraged the doctrines of sanctity, repentance, adult baptism, coming out from the world and living a life of holiness, and a literal interpretation of the Bible.

In any event, Frau Kruedener’s conversion and subsequent experiences were such that she felt the need to be an active worker in the Lord’s vineyard. As a matter of fact, she became an "evangelist", at least according to her view of what she felt an evangelist was.

Frau Kruedener travelled extensively throughout Switzerland conducting Bible study sessions and worship meetings. She personally financed many projects to aid this work. One such project was the collection and printing of hymns to be used in her church and Bible meetings.

Why was it necessary to collect new hymns? The reason was because the use of a hymnal of the established state church outside one of their official services was prohibited. As a result, it became necessary for those holding their own "independent" religious meetings to print hymns to be used in these meetings, which in essence were considered outside the official sanction of the state church and consequently illegal. Frau Kruedener saw this need, and along with her followers, acted accordingly. So, with the recognition of a need for hymns, the gathering of special hymns, which eventually found their way into the Zion’s Harfe, began.

The historical background of this hymnal is a firm testimony to the talent that lies unseen behind the composition, both in the hymn texts and the hymn tunes. Even though today’s brethren know little about the background and development of the Zion’s Harfe, nonetheless a rich and full history surrounds this great book.

The Zion’s Harfe covers a span of five centuries, from the 15th to the 20th. Aristocracy is included in its history. In fact, the person leading the initial effort to collect the first hymns was a Baroness. Moreover, a noted hymn writer whose hymns were included was a Count. Many other hymn writers were devout men of God from Germany and Switzerland.

Also, a few of the tunes included in the hymnal were composed by such musical luminaries as Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, and Rousseau (however, they did not compose specifically for the Zion’s Harfe). But, perhaps the greatest thing of all is that a good many of these authors were men and women who had repented of their sins and were converted people in the truest sense.

Interestingly, this hymnal contains a song written while the author was in a prison cell. Lacking adequate paper, he wrote on the prison wall. Moreover, another song was allegedly written during the culminating phases of the Thirty Year’s War in Germany, and it graphically depicts the spiritual feelings of that era.

In essence, the Zion’s Harfe has an expansive lore of history, and was made possible by men with a wide and notable array of talent. It is a book of measureless depth, written by the best of musical scholars and it serves very well the singing needs of the Apostolic Christian Church. It is deeply cherished.

The early fathers of the brotherhood many times simply referred to this book as "hymns for meetings of believers". It is nothing less, and nothing more. It is a sea of musical eloquence.

The Apostolic Christian Church has always appreciated hymn singing as an important part of their worship service. In doing so, the church is in accord with the words of the psalmist, "Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness".

Certainly the Zion’s Harfe songs are vivid confessions of faith and allow the assembly to come before God in true holiness and proper reverence.

Because the Zion’s Harfe is a hymnal of such measureless depth, and is so esteemed by the brotherhood, we intend to trace the origins of the hymnal, and give you interesting highlights and related historical data. This account is intended to reflect the many good points and to arouse a clearer understanding of the hymnal’s development and content.

"It is a beautiful Sunday morning. The sky is sunny and clear. The springtime air is mild and mellow, and together with nature’s fresh, appealing fragrance, it creates an atmosphere that invigorates one’s soul and being."

Such a setting is often evident when driving to the house of God on the Sabbath day of the Lord. And while the richness of God’s handiwork - in the form of the air, the sky, and the sun - is readily manifest and a delight to behold, yet another wonderful experience awaits the child of God upon entering the sanctuary of the Apostolic Christian Church. It is peaceful, solemn, and quiet. The heart takes on a calm repose as the assembly centers its thoughts on the sublime and the divine - on Almighty God.

Often, a beautiful song is sung which succinctly depicts the essence of the day and sets the stage for the ensuing worship service. It is entitled "O How Lovely is the Morning" (#166). This beauteous song begins in resonant splendor as brothers and sisters in Christ unite their voices in praise to God - and an obvious joy fills the heart. Not only are thoughts of God conjured up within the mind, but the beauty of the day serves as a poignant reminder of the presence of God’s love and power. It is a moment when one is truly glad he or she is in the house of God on Sunday morning.

Adding to the beauty of the moment is the fact that the singing is done in "a cappella" fashion, that is, without accompaniment of musical instruments. The natural beauty of the voices which ripple across the sanctuary are blended together in a mellow, four-part harmony and this truly sets the tone for a worship service that is both dignified and eloquent in its simplicity.

The overall atmosphere is one of holiness and reflects the calmness, gentleness, and richness of God. The absence of instrumentation, in this particular instance, tends to symbolize a relationship to God that is best nurtured when lacking the weight and clutter of material things. In this case, the lifting of voices are completely natural as God gave them, and are not necessarily made comely by a material object.

The particular song mentioned is both inspirational and devotional. It is especially cherished on mornings of clear and sunny skies, but equally so perhaps on each and every day. Why? Because a morning is always lovely when "with God it has its start".

Countless other songs in this hymnal provide rich lyrical phraseology that have served to inspire the brethren during worship services. Strong, vivid, and meaningful lyrics are the rule rather than the exception in the Zion’s Harfe, the official and cherished hymnal of the Apostolic Christian Church. It is a book that is deeply appreciated.

To say the least, the Zion’s Harfe is a classic. God is to be praised for allowing and preserving such a noted collection of songs for the brotherhood. The many words and phrases were written by men and women who had, not only a close relationship with God, but a keen insight into everyday life, and into those things which tend to inspire and uplift the soul.

Also, this songbook is comprehensive and provides songs for all occasions: not only for joyful and happy times, but for times of sorrow and gloom as well. It also provides for reverent and serious times such as repentance, baptism, and holy communion. The verse and prose are ideally suited for whatever situation arises.

Over the years many adulatory comments have been made concerning the hymnal, but none have surpassed the statement made by the late, elder brother who succinctly and matter-of-factly exclaimed, "The Zion’s Harfe songbook is indeed a classic!".

Certainly, in referring to this song book as a "classic", fair justice has been rendered. This then, gives rise to the question, exactly what is a "classic"? The dictionary defines it as "a work, especially in literature or art, of the highest class, and of acknowledged excellence". On this basis then, those who have over the years come to love and appreciate the songs in the Zion’s Harfe - and who recognize their intrinsic worth - can unreservedly unite with the conclusion that this hymnal is a "classic".

Songs in the Zion’s Harfe cover a wide span of time. They register a legacy that spans five centuries, from the time of Frau Kruedener to the present. Over the centuries, these songs have helped to lighten burdens, and to truly inspire converted believers to Christ.

By contrast, the book as it is known to the Apostolic Christian Church today, is little over a century old - not very old at all! Yet, it is logical to conclude that these songs, which have stood for centuries, will continue to be echoed from the lips of individual members, and will be manifested as a source of inspiration to the brotherhood.

In retrospect, two factors seem to stand out regarding the spiritual worth and durability of the songs contained within this hymnal. First, in addition to exemplifying considerable substance regarding the doctrine of Christ, it is compatible with the King James Version of the Bible that the word form of each book matches (ie. Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine). Adjunct to this, the Zion’s Harfe serves as an auxiliary inspirational source to the Bible.

Secondly, the lyrics of these songs were born in the rich historical context of German hymnody and the authors, mostly, were highly trained theologians and musicians. The fact that these songs continue to be inspirational in the fast-paced 20th century is a fitting tribute to this collection of songs.

Essentially, the hymns of the Zion’s Harfe constitute a most graphic book of confession. It is a sacred collection which has enriched the various phrases of history. The songs are an abiding memorial of inspirational lyrics and tunes. The hymnal mirrors the believers’ joys and sorrows and deepest experiences. In short, it is an eloquent witness for the all-conquering and invincible power of faith.

Since the 1830's, the Apostolic Christian brethren have cherished this beloved Zion’s Harfe hymnal. May they never tire of it. And, may this treasure of praise continue to live on and remain a classic!