On Learning by Heart

It is a valid and wise institution of our faithful God that he has given us a spiritual storehouse in the memory, in which we are able to store up seed for the future.

The old German Missouri Synod periodical Der Lutheraner regularly contained a section near the end of the magazine entitled “Aus Welt und Zeit” (From the World and Time). It spoke briefly of current events, contained snippets from other church periodicals, or included quotes from figures such as Luther or the Church Fathers. The following translation is from Der Lutheraner’s “Aus Welt und Zeit” from July 4, 1905. Originally entitled “Vom Auswendiglernen” (On Learning By Heart), it is essentially four quotes which speak to the topic of learning Bible verses and hymn verses by heart, which has been custom in our churches for a long time. We know that the current culture and public educational system generally does not value such learning, but we learn here how it has been under attack for longer than we know.

Learning by heart is a useful Christian discipline, not to be despised. The article below talks about how Bible verses and hymn verses are especially useful in times of tragedy. That really is only one application of many. King David wrote, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). The entire Christian life of sanctification makes use of those sacred words from Holy Scripture stored up in the heart. The human mind has essentially limitless capacity for storing up what it gathers by observation and experience, and God’s people should harness this capacity in a productive Christian way, one which serves God’s glory.

One quote mentions Luther’s Small Catechism, Bible verses, and hymn verses. These three elements fill the treasury of the uniquely Lutheran heart. The Bible has a privileged place here because only it is properly God’s Word, useful and inexhaustible in its application for Christian faith and life. Luther’s Small Catechism is a useful summary of Christian doctrine, stating concisely what the average man needs to know for life in this world and eternal salvation. The Catechism leads us into the Scriptures, and it places the common man on equal footing with the Bible scholar. Hymn verses confess the truth while employing the services of music and poetry. Music is a powerful medium which can carry any type of content into the heart. Christians must use this medium wisely, and so they use it in service of Christian devotion and confession.

These are called “seeds” which are planted in the heart, to produce an abundant crop as they mature. If these are seeds, we could call the process of learning these things cultivation. Of course, cultivation is related to culture. A uniquely Christian culture is where these sacred words are planted in young hearts. Christians will do this against the tide of our current culture. We live in a culture of instant gratification, pornography, addiction, and fear, a culture where these seeds are planted into the hearts of the young. The evil one weakens us and steals hearts through these poisonous seeds. Christians push back, and they will reap an abundant harvest where they sow good seed in the hearts of their children.

On Learning By Heart

The famous national economist Dr. Roscher made this judgment concerning the learning by heart of Bible sayings and spiritual songs in school: “The school administrators, who so badly want to phase out the learning by heart of Bible sayings in the school, must not have experienced what inexpressible and inexhaustible refreshment such treasures in the memory are able to impart during mournful and sleepless nights.”

The great historian Heinrich von Treitschke says: “Since Diesterweg (a well-known but liberal seminar director) made it his method to let his students find the truth for themselves, he maintained that it was spiritless training when they were coerced, according to the old school custom, to learn by heart Bible verses and hymn verses which were only partly understood. Also the church-hostile press acts very clever when it constantly rails against ‘dull memorization.’ They believe wrongly. This worldly darkness of knowledge thoroughly forgets that even the mature man only partly understands religious truths. Only when he has first made a self-concerted effort to learn them himself can these religious truths be grasped firmly. Likewise, the sublime sayings of biblical wisdom survive in a receptive memory, even when they are not engaged. Then suddenly come temptations and tragedies of life, and they prove to be a comforting and edifying power.”

The famous scholar and professor Karl von Raumer says: “In recent times they have declared war on learning by heart from all sides. And as the history of pedagogy teaches, the memory is a lower mental faculty, while reason is the highest. They speak with highest contempt about ‘memory junk,’ and they make the claim: children should not learn anything by heart that they do not already fully understand. If this were true, certainly they should learn by heart neither Luther’s Small Catechism, nor Bible sayings, nor hymns. What we have here has mostly to do with the mysteries of the faith, which reason does not establish, even in the longest human life. It is like a tree, the roots of which reach into the greatest deep, the crown of which reaches to the peak of eternity. These mysteries are our comfort and hope in life and death. It is a valid and wise institution of our faithful God that he has given us a spiritual storehouse in the memory, in which we are able to store up seed for the future. The uninformed regard these seeds as dead; not so he who knows better. He knows that suddenly the seed’s vigorous power germinates at the proper time. The boy learns the saying, ‘Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me’ [Ps. 50:15]. He knows in his childhood years of no trouble, and so he does not understand the saying. But when he reaches adulthood and experiences trouble of the daunting and unrelenting kind, then suddenly the saying touches his soul like an angel of peace and comfort. He finally understands. Children learn the hymn verse by heart: ‘My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door,’ [LSB 450:6] and they do not fully understand, because the thought of death is far from them. But the elderly have prayed the same verse in their hour of death, which they learned as children, and they understood better than before. In the seven fat years Joseph gathered for the seven meager years. When the time of trouble arrives, it is too late to gather. Bible verses and hymns—I call these seeds. Specifically, I mean the old hymns which have sprung by power of the Divine Word. Let them learn these specifically. Of course, in the newer hymnals they have notoriously snipped out the living bud from those old powerful hymns. One cannot enlighten the memory of children with such deaf and dead seeds.”

The Catholic Archduke Maximillian of Austria, who came to such a sad end as Emperor of Mexico, wrote in his journal: “Today a sailor died on board. He felt his death drawing near. He was full of anxiety, and he requested that someone pray with him. The doctor inquired with the officers and crew. Everyone declined. None of them were in the position to pray with a soul which was about to cross over into eternity! So I went to the dying man myself. But also I was not able to pray. I only brought forth convoluted words, for which I was ashamed of myself.” “If among that ship’s crew,” says a church newspaper, “only a Protestant had been there, who commanded ‘memory material,’ then it would have been spared that shameful embarrassment of not being able to comfort a dying man. There would have been sayings like these: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden,’ [Mt. 10:28] ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son,’ [Jn. 3:16] or hymn verses like this: ‘My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door’ [LSB 450:6]. These would have refreshed not only the dying man, but the whole crew.”


Ryan Loeslie

Rev. Ryan Loeslie is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Dimock, SD.

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