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Studies in Hymns

The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook

German Hymns of the Reformation

by Wayne S. Walker

A few days later, Mom was not feeling well, so Dad stayed home all day to watch the boys and help them with their school work. Andrew was studying world history and had come to the time of the Reformation. After reading about Martin Luther, he asked Dad a question. "A few days ago, you told us about some of the hymns of the medieval Catholic Church that were written in Latin. I know that other languages had developed by that time but that most hymns were still in Latin. So was it during the Reformation that hymns in other languages were written? I read where Martin Luther himself wrote some hymns."

Dad replied, "You are right. Practically all the hymns that we have from the Middle Ages come from the Catholic Church because as the only expression of Christianity known to most people at that time, it was the primary unifying factor in the lives of individuals in an otherwise fragmented society. And they were in Latin. However, the Renaissance brought a renewed interest in learning and education, thus encouraging people to start reading the Bible for themselves, and paved the way for the Reformation. The concept of the Reformation actually began in Italy with Peter Waldo during the 12th century, England with John Wycliffe in the 14th century, and Moravia with Jan Hus in the 14th and 15th centuries. Yet, the Reformation didn't take off as an important historical movement until Martin Luther, a German priest, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517.

"Apparently because he was the right man at the right time, Luther ignited a fire that spread rapidly all over western Europe and beyond. The basic result of the Reformation in northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries was the Lutheran Church. However, there were different expressions in other places. In Switzerland, France (although it was killed off there during the Huguenot Wars), the low countries, some parts of Germany, and especially Scotland, the Reformed theology of John Calvin was adopted. In England, the Anglican Church resulted from Henry VIII's break from the church at Rome. And throughout middle Europe, various individuals who originally stood with Luther eventually began to find that they differed with him on various points, and these formed the basis for the many Anabaptist groups that arose (such as Brethren, Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, etc.).

"However, because of the fact that the major thrust of the Reformation began in Germany and Luther's overpowering influence, the majority of hymns which come to us from the Reformation times are German Lutheran chorales. By this period, religious music in the Catholic Church had become so complex that only trained choirs could sing in the churches. Just as Luther believed that the Bible should be translated into common languages so that it could be given back to the people, he was convinced that hymns should be written for everyone to sing so that the worship could be given back to the people. Many authorities believe that one reason why the Reformation spread so rapidly was because of its singing.

"As you noted, Luther himself was a hymnwriter, composing some 37 songs, and in 1529 penned what has become known as 'The Battle Hymn of the Reformation, ' known in German as 'Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott.' It has been translated many times, but the most enduring translation into English was made by Frederick Henry Hedge in 1852 as 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.'" Dad went to get the hymnbooks again, looked in the index of one, and opened it up.

1. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great,
and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.
2. Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His Name,
from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.
3. And though this world, with evils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.
4. That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.

"Luther wrote his own tune for this song, and Johann Sebastian Bach provided the modern arrangement. However, Luther did not invent the idea of congregational singing. Many of his Reformation predecessors had promoted it, especially Jan Hus. Hus's followers were mostly driven out of Moravia and Bohemia and found refuge in various friendly states of Germany. They discovered a natural affinity with the Lutherans and their hymns gradually merged into the general stream of German hymns. One of them was Petrus or Peter Herbert (d. 1571). In 1566 he wrote a hymn 'Der Glaub ist ein lebendig Kraft' which has been translated into English as 'Faith Is A Living Power.' Following Luther's death, a spate of German hymnals arose, but few from the latter 16th century survive except those of Philip Nicolai. In 1599 he wrote a hymn 'Wachet Auf, Ruff Uns Die Stimme,' which was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1858 as 'Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying.'"

1. Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying: Awake, Jerusalem, at last!
Midnight hears the welcome voices And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
Come forth, ye virgins, night is past;
The Bridegroom comes, awake; Your lamps with gladness take; Alleluia!
And for His marriage feast prepare For ye must go and meet Him there.
2. Zion hears the watchmen singing, And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all glorious, The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her Star is risen, her Light is come.
Ah come, Thou blessèd One, God’s own belovèd Son: Alleluia!
We follow till the halls we see Where Thou hast bid us sup with Thee.
3. Now let all the heavens adore Thee, And saints and angels sing before Thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone;
Of one pearl each shining portal, Where we are with the choir immortal
Of angels round Thy dazzling throne;
Nor eye hath seen, nor ear hath yet attained to hear What there is ours,
but we rejoice and sing to Thee Our hymn of joy eternally.

"Again, Nicolai composed his own tune, and Johann Sebastian Bach made the modern arrangement. The early part of the 17th century was dominated by the 30 Years War (1618-1648), which began in Bohemia between Protestant and Catholic Princes, and eventually grew to involve most of continental Europe. During this time, the Protestant Netherlands sought to break away from control by Catholic Spain, and in 1625 the Protestant Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, came to power. A hymn that was apparently written to celebrate this event, possibly by Adrianus Valerius and first published in 1626 in a book that he had compiled, was translated into English by Theodore Baker in 1894 as 'We Gather Together.'"

1. We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.
2. Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!
3. We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

"It is thought by some that Valerius himself provided both the text and the tune. This is Dutch rather than German but it comes from this same basic time period."

"Georg Weissel was a Prussian scholar, school-teacher, and Lutheran minister. Sometime before his death in 1635, he wrote a hymn, 'Macht hoch die Thur, das Thor macht weit,' which was translated into English in 1855 by Catherine Winkworth as 'Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates.'"

1. Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates; Behold, the King of glory waits;
The King of kings is drawing near; The Savior of the world is here!
2. A Helper just He comes to thee, His chariot is humility,
His kingly crown is holiness, His scepter, pity in distress.
3. O blest the land, the city blest, Where Christ the Ruler is confessed!
O happy hearts and happy homes To whom this King in triumph comes!
4. Fling wide the portals of your heart; Make it a temple, set apart
From earthly use for heaven’s employ, Adorned with prayer and love and joy.
5. Redeemer, come, with us abide; Our hearts to Thee we open wide;
Let us Thy inner presence feel; Thy grace and love in us reveal.
6. Thy Holy Spirit lead us on Until our glorious goal is won;
Eternal praise, eternal fame Be offered, Savior, to Thy Name!

"This hymn is usually sung to an anonymous tune first published in Thomas Williams's Psalmodia Evangelica of 1789. About that same time as Weissel, Martin Rinkhart, a Lutheran minister at Eilenberg and author of 66 hymns, wrote a song, 'Nun danket alle Gott.' Some have said it was to celebrate the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the 30 Years War but since it first appeared somewhere between 1630 and 1636 the date forbids it, although it may have been to celebrate a minor victory or even the end of a siege during the war. It was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1858 as 'Now Thank We All Our God.'"

1. 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.
2. 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!
3. 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.

"Johann Cruger composed the tune, and the modern arrangement was made by Felix Mendelssohn. Also around 1630, a Lutheran scholar and minister in Loben named Johann Heermann wrote several hymns, one of which is "O Jesu Christe, wahres Licht." It was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1858 as 'O Christ, Our True and Only Light.'

"As we move on toward the middle of the 1600's, three Lutheran hymnwriters stand out. The first was Matthaus Appeles von Lowenstern, a notable musician who became a high official in the state under Emperor Ferdinand III. The best known of his 30 hymns, 'Christe, du Beistand deiner Kreuzgemeine' of 1644, was translated, or rather paraphrased into English by Philip Pusey in 1834 as 'Lord of our Life, and God.' Probably the best-known hymnwriter of this time was Paul Gerhardt, who became a Lutheran minister first in Mittenwald and then in Berlin. He produced around 133 hymns. In 1648 he wrote his famous 'Nun ruhen alle Walder,' which was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1855 as 'Now Rest Beneath Night's Shadow.'"

1. Now rest beneath night’s shadow The woodland, field, and meadow, The world in slumber lies;
But Thou, my heart, awake thee, To prayer and song betake thee; Let praise to thy Creator rise.
2. The radiant sun hath vanished, His golden rays are banished By night, the foe of day;
But Christ, the Sun of gladness, Dispelling all my sadness, Within my heart holds constant sway.
3. The rule of day is over And shining jewels cover The heaven’s boundless blue.
Thus I shall shine in heaven, Where crowns of gold are given To all who faithful prove and true.
4. To rest my body hasteth, Aside its garments casteth, Types of mortality;
These I put off and ponder How Christ will give me yonder A robe of glorious majesty.
5. Lord Jesus, Who dost love me, Oh, spread Thy wings above me And shield me from alarm!
Though evil would assail me, Thy mercy will not fail me: I rest in Thy protecting arm.
6. My loved ones, rest securely, For God this night will surely From peril guard your heads.
Sweet slumbers may He send you And bid His hosts attend you And through the night watch o’er your beds.

"The tune is an old Austrian folksong that is sometimes attributed to Heinrich Isaac. The last major Lutheran hymnwriter of the middle 17th century was Johann Franck. A lawyer rather than a minister, he wrote around 110 hymns, and his best-known, 'Jesu, meine Freude' of 1655, was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1863 as 'Jesus, Priceless Treasure.'

"Coming into the later 17th and early 18th century, we find that German Catholics were not completely idle regarding hymns. An anonymous hymn 'Schonster Herr Jesu' appeared in a 1677 Catholic hymnbook published in Muenster, but has been found in a manuscript dating back to 1662; three stanzas were translated into English in 1850, presumably by Richard S. Willis, and others in 1873 by Joseph A. Seiss, as 'Fairest Lord Jesus.'"

1. Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature, O Thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor, Thou, my soul’s glory, joy and crown.
2. Fair are the meadows, fairer still the woodlands, Robed in the blooming garb of spring;
Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer, Who makes the woeful heart to sing.
3. Fair is the sunshine, Fairer still the moonlight, And all the twinkling starry host;
Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer Than all the angels heaven can boast.
4. All fairest beauty, heavenly and earthly, Wondrously, Jesus, is found in Thee;
None can be nearer, fairer or dearer, Than Thou, my Savior, art to me.
5. Beautiful Savior! Lord of all the nations! Son of God and Son of Man!
Glory and honor, praise, adoration, Now and forever more be Thine.

"The tune is sometimes said to date back to the Crusades, but most scholars believe it to be a Silesian folksong. A Lutheran hymnwriter of this same time period was Freidrich Rudolph Ludwig von Canitz. A government official who was finally made a baron, he wrote a hymn, 'Seele du musst munter werden,' sometime before his death in 1699 that was published in 1700 and translated into English in 1838 by Henry J. Buckoll as 'Come, My Soul, Thou Must Be Waking.'

"In the later 17th century a new force arose among the Lutherans known as Pietism which reacted to a perceived lack of spirituality in the Lutheran Church after it became the state religion in many northern German states. It had a great influence upon the hymns written during that period. The greatest Pietistic hymnwriter was Joachim Neander, son of a minister who became a Lutheran and wrote around 60 hymns before he died at the age of 30. His most famous, 'Lobe den Herren, den machtigen Konig' of 1680, was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth in 1863 as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.'"

1. Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near; Praise Him in glad adoration.
2. Praise to the Lord, Who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires ever have been Granted in what He ordaineth?
3. Praise to the Lord, Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, If with His love He befriend thee.
4. Praise to the Lord, Who hath fearfully, wondrously, made thee;
Health hath vouchsafed and, when heedlessly falling, hath stayed thee.
What need or grief ever hath failed of relief? Wings of His mercy did shade thee.
5. Praise to the Lord, Who, when darkness of sin is abounding,
Who, when the godless do triumph, all virtue confounding,
Sheddeth His light, chaseth the horrors of night, Saints with His mercy surrounding.
6. Praise to the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen sound from His people again, Gladly for aye we adore Him.

"Johann Cruger may also have composed the tune for it as well. Benjamin Schmolke was not a Pietist, but he lived while Pietism was waxing and his attitudes were influenced by it. Working in Silesia, where the Catholic Counter-Reformation made considerable gains, he labored under severe restrictions. He wrote some 900 hymns, the best-known of which, 'Mein Jesu, wie du wilst' of 1709, was translated into English by Jane Laurie Borthwick in 1854 as 'My Jesus, As Thou Wilt.'"

1. My Jesus, as Thou wilt! Oh, may Thy will be mine! Into Thy hand of love I would my all resign;
Through sorrow, or through joy, conduct me as Thine own, And help me still to say, my Lord, Thy will be done!
2. My Jesus, as Thou wilt! If needy here and poor, Give me Thy people’s bread, their portion rich and sure.
The manna of Thy Word Let my soul feed upon; And if all else should fail, my Lord, thy will be done.
3. My Jesus, as Thou wilt! Though seen through many a tear, Let not my star of hope grow dim or disappear;
Since Thou on earth hast wept, and sorrowed oft alone, If I must weep with Thee, my Lord, Thy will be done!
4. My Jesus, as Thou wilt! All shall be well for me; Each changing future scene I gladly trust with Thee:
Straight to my home above I travel calmly on, And sing, in life or death, my Lord, Thy will be done!

"We usually use a tune arranged from a melody by German Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber. The majority of the German hymns of Reformation times come from the Lutherans, but Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the son of a Saxon minister of state, left the Lutheran Church when he was 22 and joined the Moravians. His 1721 hymn 'Jesu, geh voran,' was translated into English by Jane Laurie Borthwick in 1846 as 'Jesus, Still Lead On.'

"Even though the Reformation had become a settled affair in Germany by the 18th and 19th centuries, several German hymns have come to us from that time. Gerhard Tersteegen, a businessman who eventually left the State Church to become an independent, itinerant religious teacher and wrote about 568 hymns. One of the most widely used, 'Gott ist gegenwartig! lasset uns anbeten' of 1729, was translated into English by Frederick W. Foster and John Miller in 1789 as 'God Himself Is With Us.'"

1. God Himself is with us: Let us now adore Him, And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple, all within keep silence, Prostrate lie with deepest reverence.
Him alone God we own, Him our God and Savior; Praise His Name forever.
2. God Himself is with us: Hear the harps resounding! See the crowds the throne surrounding!
“Holy, holy, holy,” hear the hymn ascending, Angels, saints, their voices blending!
Bow Thine ear to us here: Hear, O Christ, the praises That Thy church now raises.
3. O Thou fount of blessing, purify my spirit; Trusting only in Thy merit,
Like the holy angels who behold Thy glory, May I ceaselessly adore Thee,
And in all, great and small, seek to do most nearly What Thou lovest dearly.

"The tune is usually attributed to Joachim Neander. Christian F. Gellert was the son of a Lutheran minister who himself studied theology but eventually became a teacher and poet instead. In 1757 he wrote a hymn 'Jesus lebt, mit ihm auch ich,' an English composite version of which was made from translations of J. D. Lang and Frances E. Cox in 1855 by Philip Schaff as 'Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.'"

1. Jesus lives, and so shall I. Death, thy sting is gone forever! He who deigned for me to die
Lives, the bonds of death to sever. He shall raise me with the just: Jesus is my Hope and Trust.
2. Jesus lives and reigns supreme, And, His kingdom still remaining, I shall also be with Him,
Ever living, ever reigning. God has promised; be it must: Jesus is my Hope and Trust.
3. Jesus lives, and death is now But my entrance into glory. Courage, then, my soul, for thou
Hast a crown of life before thee. Thou shalt find thy hopes were just: Jesus is the Christian's trust.

"The tune is usually attributed to Johann Cruger. Matthias Claudius was also the son of a Lutheran minister who became a newspaperman and commissioner of agriculture. In 1782 he wrote a long descriptive poem, 'Paul Eardmann's Festival,' a section of which beginning 'Wir pflugen und wir streuen' was translated into English as a hymn by Jane Campbell in 1861 as 'We Plow the Fields and Scatter.'"

1. We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
2. He only is the Maker of all things near and far;
He paints the wayside flower, He lights the evening star;
The winds and waves obey Him, by Him the birds are fed;
Much more to us, His children, He gives our daily bread.
3. We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, and food;
No gifts have we to offer, for all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.
Refrain. All good gifts around us Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord For all His love.

"The tune was written by Johann A. P. Schulz. Another anonymous German hymn entitled 'Beim fruhen Morgenlicht' from around 1800 that was first published in a Catholic hymnbook of Wurzburg in 1828 was translated into English by Edward Caswall in 1853 as 'When Morning Gilds the Skies.'"

1. When morning gilds the skies my heart awaking cries: May Jesus Christ be praised!
Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair: May Jesus Christ be praised!
2. Does sadness fill my mind? A solace here I find, May Jesus Christ be praised!
Or fades my earthly bliss? My comfort still is this, May Jesus Christ be praised!
3. The night becomes as day when from the heart we say: May Jesus Christ be praised!
The powers of darkness fear when this sweet chant they hear: May Jesus Christ be praised!
4. Ye nations of mankind, In this your concord find: May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let all the earth around Ring joyous with the sound: May Jesus Christ be praised!
5. In Heav’n’s eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this, May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let earth, and sea and sky from depth to height reply, May Jesus Christ be praised!
6. Be this, while life is mine, my canticle divine: May Jesus Christ be praised!
Sing this eternal song through all the ages long: May Jesus Christ be praised!

"English composer Joseph Barnby composed the tune for this hymn. However, the best-known hymn from the German world of the 1800's comes from the Austrian town of Oberndorf north of Salzburg, where in 1818 a Catholic priest named Josef Mohr wrote his famous 'Stille nacht, Heilige nacht' with the tune provided by the village schoolteacher Franz Gruber. Several translations have been made, but the most often used translation made in 1863 is attributed to John F. Young and is sung throughout the English world as 'Silent Night, Holy Night.'"

1. Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace.
2. Silent night, holy night, Shepherds quake at the sight; Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia! Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!
3. Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.
4. Silent night, holy night Wondrous star, lend thy light; With the angels let us sing,
Alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!

"The Lutheran branch of the Reformation affected not only Germany but also Scandinavia. Bernhard Severin Ingemann was the son of a Danish Lutheran minister and became a university professor. His 1825 hymn 'Igjennem Nat og Traengsel' was translated into English by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1867 as 'Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow.'

"As we have seen, some of the first hymns of the Reformation that are still remembered today come from the German Lutheran Church. Not many German hymns after the 19th century are well known in the English language. However, there were other branches of the Reformation. The Moravians pretty much blended in with the Lutherans so far as their hymns were concerned. The same is true to a large extent with the Anabaptists. Yet, the Swiss-French branch of the Reformation, led by John Calvin, did have an important impact on the development of hymn singing in the English language because of its emphasis on singing the Psalms. And, of course, the Anglican Church definitely influenced the development of English hymns. But many of the German chorales are still sung."

Seth, who had been listening too, said, "I don't recognize many of those hymns, but I do remember singing, 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,' every now and then."

Andrew added, "And everyone knows 'Silent Night.'"

"Yes," concluded Dad, as he put the hymnbooks back on the shelf. "But now it's time for both of you to get back to your studies."

Prior in Series: The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook: Latin Hymns of the Medieval Church
Next in Series: The Young Person's Guide to the Hymnbook: The Psalms