When I was invited to write about the Post-Communion of the Divine Service for Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services, I was pleased because the project would finally give me a chance to try and solve the conundrum of the Nunc Dimittis in the American Lutheranism. The conundrum was very simple. Major resources reported that the Nunc Dimittis used as a post-communion canticle had a very minimal history in the practice of Lutheranism and that most Lutheran orders of service did not include it (Luther A. Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, Rev. ed. 1947, 379; Philip H. Pfatteicher, Commentary on the Lutheran Book of Worship, 1990, 190).
The committee that created the Common Service (1888) was striving to provide the parts and order for the “Normal Lutheran Service,” and so not surprisingly, the Nunc Dimittis was not included (Edward T. Horn, “The Lutheran Sources of the Common Service,” The Lutheran Quarterly 21:2 : 239–268, 244). However, both Reed and Pfatteicher report that because of a “general desire” for the Nunc Dimittis it was inserted as a permissive use (Reed, 379-380; Pfatteicher, 191). The question then is how there could have been a “general desire” for the Nunc Dimittis in American Lutheranism. If the Nunc Dimittis had no real history of use in Lutheranism as a post-communion canticle, why did American Lutherans want to have it?
The answer to the question – and the solution to the conundrum – is found in the work of Wilhelm Löhe. In 1844, Löhe published his Agende für christliche Gemeinden des lutherischen Bekenntnisses for use by the pastors he was sending to America. This work included the Nunc Dimittis as a post-communion canticle, and Löhe included it again in the second and expanded edition of 1853 along with information describing its history in early Lutheranism. Thus, congregations served by pastors with ties to Löhe used the Nunc Dimittis from 1844 to around 1856 when as part of the LCMS they began using the synod’s newly published Kirchen-Agende für Evangelisch-Lutherische Gemeinden ungeänderter Augsburgischer Confession. Like most Lutherans, the Saxon Lutherans had not experienced the use of the Nunc Dimittis in the agenda they brought with them (Kirchenbuch für den evanglischen Gottesdienst der Königlich Sächsischen Lande; 1812), and it was not included in the first agenda of the LCMS.
Most likely, that would have been the end of the Nunc Dimmitis. However, the General Synod along with the Pennsylvania Ministerium and the synods of New York and Ohio were working on a new agenda that would be more faithful to the Lutheran tradition than books like the Kirchen-Agende der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Vereinigten Gemeinen in Nord-America (1786), Liturgie oder Kirchen Agende der Evangelish-Lutherischen Gemein in Pennsylvanian und den benachbarten Staaten (1818), and the Liturgie und Kirchenagende für die Evangelisch-Lutherischen Gemeinden in Pennsylvanien, Neu York, Ohio und den benachbarten Staaten (1842). In 1855 they produced the Liturgie und Agende: Ein Kirchenbuch für die Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche in den Vereinigten Staaten. This book included the Nunc Dimittis as a post-communion canticle.
The source of this arrangement was certainly Löhe’s agenda. In 1860 the Ministerium of Pennsylvania produced A Liturgy for the Use of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which was an English translation and revision of the 1855 German book. This work included the Nunc Dimittis as well. We know that those who produced A Liturgy for the Use of the Evangelical Lutheran Church used Löhe’s agenda as source (Martin J. Lohrmann, “Loehe and the Ministerium of Pennsylvania: Wilhelm Loehe’s Reception among Contemporaries in the Eastern United States,” Currents in Theology and Missions 39, no. 1 : 72–79, 76). In fact, the introduction to the book is a shortened version of the one in the first edition (1844) of Löhe’s agenda. Eastern American Lutherans were very familiar with Löhe’s work, and the Nunc Dimittis is one result of this.
While LCMS members today assume that the Nunc Dimittis will be used as a post-communion canticle, it arrived very late in general usage in the synod. As one would expect, Church Liturgy - the 1881 English translation of Walther’s German agenda (1856) – did not include it. However, the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1889) which was the LCMS’s first English hymnal, did have the Nunc Dimittis (we see here the influence of the Common Service). The Nunc Dimittis has appeared in every LCMS order of service since then. It entered into common usage through The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), which adopted the Common Service (1888). For more details on this history, see Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Services, 635-636.
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