Skip to comments.Lutheranism's Sweetest Voice Turns 400: Paul Gerhardt's beloved hymns were a product of suffering
Posted on 03/12/2007 8:23:38 AM PDT by Charles Henrickson
Lutheranisms Sweetest Voice Turns 400
Paul Gerhardts beloved hymns were a product of suffering
Malcolm Muggeridge once called suffering the only method by which we have ever learned anything. Nothing corroborates this British authors insight more profoundly than the poetry of Paul Gerhardt, who was born exactly four centuries ago, on March 12, 1607, in Gräfenhainichen near Wittenberg. For most of his childhood, youth and maturity, this Saxon pastor experienced one of the worst calamities that ever afflicted Central Europe the Thirty Years War (1618-48). Yet the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, wrote Catherine Winkworth (1837-1878), whose English translations of Gerhardts verses reflect their purity of thought, their beauty and elegant iambic meter with astonishing accuracy.
We live at a time when in many Sunday services saccharine platitudes take the place of the traditional chorale with its theological weight, choice of words and musical splendor, to wit banalities such as this: He is able more than able / To accomplish what concerns me today / He is able more than able / To handle anything that comes my way. Hence it seems imperative to ponder the exquisite beauty of Gerhardts songs, for example:
Entrust your days and burdens
To Gods most loving hand;
He cares for you while ruling
The sky, the sea, the land.
For he who guides the tempest
Along their thunderous ways
Will find for you a pathway
And guide you all your days. (LSB 754).
This was written in 1653, a mere five years after the Westphalian Peace, when Germany was still in ruins; when the country still mourned the loss of 20 to 30 percent of its population; when its agriculture, indeed its entire economy was destroyed; when peasants, Lutherans and Catholics alike, were still traumatized by the memory of having to drink gallons upon gallons of liquid manure called Schwedentrunk because it was forced down their throats with crude funnels by marauding Swedish soldiers.
A remarkable mix of Trost und Trotz (consolation and defiance) lends Gerhardts hymns its unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Möller. This defiance is directed against pain while consolation comes from his trust in Gods governance and goodness and from the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardts genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other, said Möller: Consolation without defiance turns into a whine, while defiance without consolation embitters you.
Among the 17 Gerhardt hymns in the new Lutheran Service Book of the LCMS, there is one that reflects the Trotz und Trost in his faith most clearly:
Why should cross and trial grieve me?
Christ is near with his cheer;
Never will he leave me.
Who can rob me of the heaven
That Gods Son for me won
When his life was given (LSB 756).
What makes Gerhardt so unique is his ability to describe the reality of the Cross in elegant meters. The Germans knowledge of this reality was one of the great assets of the 17th century; for all its darkness, this was a century in which, in Winkworths words, the very genius of the German people expressed itself in religious rhymes.
Paul Gerhardt ranks the second most important crafter of hymns in German Protestantism, after Martin Luther himself, but he had worthy competitors among his contemporaries. There was, for example, his fellow Saxon pastor Martin Rinckart who in 1636, as the Swedes laid siege on the town of Eilenburg, wrote, Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices -- and this in-between burying an average of 50 plague victims every day!
It says a great deal about Christianitys trivialization in the last 400 years that a retiring bishop of the Church of England recently informed an interviewer he considered it his greatest accomplishment to have purged this choral the basis of a wonderful cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach from the hymnals in his diocese. The significance of the cross clearly eluded this supercilious prelate.
In an interview with the German Protestant magazine, Zeitzeichen (signs of the times), Christian Möller explained Gerhardts greatness in part with the fact that he belonged to the era of Lutheran orthodoxy, which was attentive to doctrinal clarity, and therefore sang with clarity. Möller went on, I do wish the days of doctrinal clarity came back leading to more clarity in peoples lives and song.
The Rev. Henry Gericke, organist and choirmaster at Concordia Seminary and an editor with Concordia Publishing House, feels that if the Lutheran Church had patron saints, Gerhardt should be the patron saint of Lutheran pastors. Indeed he should. The author of 139 hymns including, O Lord, how shall I meet you? (LSB 334) and A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth (LSB 438) led a life bearing the Cross.
There was the Thirty Years War when he lost his parental home. There was the loss of his wife and four of his five children to disease. There was his personal illness. There was the loss of his powerful pulpit at the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) in Berlin after a contest between Frederick William I. of Prussia, called the Great Elector, and the Lutheran clergy in that city. The prince was a Calvinist while most of his subjects were Lutherans.
Ministers of both communities used to attack each other ferociously in their sermons. In 1665, the Elector tried to put a stop to that, insisting that Lutheran pastors signed a document pledging not to criticize Reformed theology anymore. But this meant that in their homilies they could no longer refer to the Formula of Concord, which condemns Reformed doctrines.
Until that point, Gerhardt had been restrained in his public disapproval of Calvinism, so much so that the Electors pious wife, Louisa, herself an authoress of hymns, often attended his services. But after the princes edict, Gerhardt became very outspoken. Though ill, he assembled Berlins Lutheran pastors his sickbed, imploring them to remain steadfast in asserting their right to free speech.
And so he lost his influential position, a deprivation he later called a small sort of Berlin martyrdom, which was all the more egregious as he was now separated from his organist Johann Crüger, who had put many of Gerhardts poems to music. In a sense, Gerhardts small martyrdom foreshadowed the confessional struggles in Prussia a century and a half later when King Frederick William III forced Lutherans in his realm into a union with the Reformed, an event which led to the emigration of confessional Lutherans to America and ultimately the formation of the LCMS. So Gericke has a point: If Lutherans had patron saints, Gerhardt would be the one.
Yet there was also a fascinating ecumenical side to Gerhardts work. Only thirty years after his death in 1676 in the small town of Lübben, then Saxony, Gerhardt became perhaps the first Lutheran poet to have a song published in a Roman Catholic hymnal. That hymn was, On Sacred Head Now Wounded (LSB 449). It is rooted in medieval mysticism and specifically in a genre going back to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Cistercian abbot. It involved pondering and saluting separate body parts of the suffering Christ, such as his head in Gerhardts perhaps most haunting verses.
Ironically, the sanctuary in Lübben where this confessional Lutheran last served as archdeacon, and where he is buried, is no longer a Lutheran but a Union church because Lutheran Saxony lost Lübben to Prussia in the 19th century. The church bears his name, though: Paul Gerhardt Kirche. And there, an inscription at his portrait reminds visitors of his little sort of Berlin martyrdom: Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus a theologian sifted in Satans sieve.
Uwe Siemon-Netto is scholar-in-residence at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis
I don't understand this. Really. Why would that be something to be so proud of? What on earth is wrong with church leaders today?
Contemporary Christian "praise songs" are so banal, repetitive, and devoid of theology, that I for one relish the hymns found in our "old" Lutheran hymnals. Contemporary praise songs also completely miss the mark when it comes to what the article refers to as "Trotz und Trost", because we as poor, miserable sinners need encouragemet through the storms of life, not just get-happy platitudes.
Thank you for this post!
When I was a kid, I used to love singing Now Thanks We All Our God while at Mass. It was one of my favorite hymns. One that I could still sing because I remember the meoldy exactly.
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, Whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
Thank you, Pastor, for the ping. I've copied the post into Word for archive purposes. I too agree that old liturgy and hymns are the best. I wish our congregation would return to them. Perhaps we will, as we may be seeking a new pastor. I will certainly voice my opinion should the time arise.
Keep a Good Lent!
The stinking feminazis who put together the new ELCA "Evangelical Lutheran Worship" have either eliminated or "altered" into effeminate pablum so many great Lutheran chorales--as well as Wesleyan and Anglican classics. And now that feminazi/peacnik/heretic hymnal and liturgy book has been shoved down our throats in our Blue State synod, whether we want it or not!!!!
It is the feminazis who are responsible for 95% of the decline of American Lutheranism in the past several decades--as well as the decline of many other American denominations. (Even Roman Catholicism has not entirely escaped their degrative influence.) And it is they who have made the senseless obsession with "gays" and their "rights" in the churches possible. And yet many people in the churches, especially in Blue States, do not recognize that there has been a decline.
Feminazis should be ashamed of themeselves, and repent! However, they are proud of their dirty-work instead.
The Feminazis are not Christian, therefore they have no shame.
Thank you for the ping, Pastor. Just reading your homilies calms my spirit and regales my soul. I cannot imagine the Joy to actually hear one delivered by you.
This is when my mother's side of my family came from Germany.
I checked CW and see that there are 18 of his hymns in it. Some are favorites of mine but there are a couple I don't believe I have ever heard!
P.S. Catherine Winkworth is amazing!
The ELCA (and other lameline) feminazis and gaysbians believe that they are Christians, and they are baptized. Some of them even believe that they are better Christians than we orthodox and conservative folks, because they are "welcoming" and we are supposed to be "judgmental".
Moreover, in our Lenten journey, we may find that we ourselves have not been ashamed or repented of sins we have committed, including the little heresies that it is nearly impossible not to pick up in a Boomer and liberal-dominated environment.
Nevertheless, heresy is heresy, schism (i.e., moving so far away from the Church with feminazi ideology that your "church body" has essentially become separated from the Body of Christ) is schism, and immorality is immorality. One has to call a spade a spade, like Athanasius and other Church Fathers who fought heresy in earlier times!
It is interesting how they use the term "judgmental" in such a judgmental manner. It is amazing how intolerant the left is when demanding tolerance for themselves!
I’m scheduled to be interviewed this afternoon (4:00-4:30 Central) on the Issues Etc. radio/Internet program, on the topic, “Paul Gerhardt: A Hymn Writer For You.”
There’s a link there to listen live, and tomorrow the archive will be posted.
Here are links to the five-part sermon series I did on “The Hymns of Paul Gerhardt”:
“’Hymns That Adore Him’: The Baptized Life within Your Vocation”
“’Oh, May Thy Love Possess Me Whole’: A Heart Warmed with Love”
“’When Life’s Troubles Rise to Meet Me: Sifted in Satan’s Sieve”
“’This Lamb Is Christ, the Soul’s Great Friend’: The Father Sends His Willing Son”
“’Your Cross I Place Before Me’: Contemplating Christ Crucified”
Ich bin ein good hymner.
We SING the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule the day
The moon shines, too, at His command
And all the stars obey
We SING the goodness of the Lord
Who fills the earth with food
Who formed His creatures by a word
And then pronounced them good.
One thing I love about the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church is the fact that we SING.
We SING all those old, melodic verses with their quaint but inspirational, comforting words. What more powerful hymn, both words and music, is there existant than Luther's battle hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God....A Trusty Shield and Weapon"?
The traditional noels we sing on Christman Eve and Christmas morning services warm the heart and bring back memories of holidays past and loved ones passed on.
I''m SO blessed in belonging to a conservative church that SINGS all the great hymns in its religious history.
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