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Lutheranism’s Sweetest Voice Turns 400

February 24th, 2007
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Thanks to Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto for sending this article.

Malcolm Muggeridge once called suffering the only method by which we have ever learned anything. Nothing corroborates this British author’s insight more profoundly than the poetry of Paul Gerhardt, who was born exactly four centuries ago, on March 12, 1607, in Graefenhainichen 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 Gerhardt’€™s 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 Gerhardt’s songs, for example:

Entrust your days and burdens
To God’s 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 Gerhardt’s hymns its unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Mueller. This defiance is directed against pain while consolation comes from his trust in God’s governance and goodness – and from the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardt’s genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other, said Mueller "€œConsolation 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 God’s 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 Winkworth’s 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, "€œNow 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 Christianity’€™s 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 Mueller explained Gerhardt’s greatness in part with the fact that he "€œbelonged to the era of Lutheran orthodoxy, which was attentive to doctrinal clarity, and therefore sang with clarity." Mueller went on, "€œI do wish the days of doctrinal clarity came back– leading to more clarity in people’s 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 Elector’s pious wife, Louisa, herself an authoress of hymns, often attended his services. But after the prince’s edict, Gerhardt became very outspoken. Though ill, he assembled Berlin’s 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 Crueger who had put many of Gerhardt’s poems to music. In a sense, Gerhardt’s "€œsmall 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 Gerhardt’s work. Only thirty years after his death in 1676 in the small town of Luebben, then Saxony, Gerhardt became perhaps the first Lutheran poet to have a song published in a Roman Catholic hymnal. That hymn was, "O 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 Gerhardt’s perhaps most haunting verses.

Ironically, the sanctuary in Luebeen 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 Luebben 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"€: "€œTheologus in cribro Satanae versatus" "a theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve."

Uwe Siemon-Netto is scholar-in-residence at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. February 24th, 2007 at 07:45 | #1

    Wouldn’t “exactly four centuries ago” have been February 24, 1607? Perhaps you are taking in some complicated monastic lograthim to make up for leap years and such. But my guess: don’t let McCain do your taxes. :)
    Great post.
    McCain: In this case, the math problem lies with Brother Siemon-Netto, but….I didn’t notice. So, there you go.

  2. February 27th, 2007 at 16:11 | #2

    An additional note on “Lutheranism’s Sweetest Voice” There is a very striking illustration of Paul Gerhardt’s version of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” at the church of St. Moritz in Mittenwalde, where he was serving as pastor when he wrote that hymn. Right above the altar (16th century) is a painting based on the cloth of Veronica–the thorn crowned, bloody head of Christ. Interesting that during the Reformation era, that altar remained untouched and that a century and a half later, the pastor of that church would gaze upon that image every time the divine service was celebrated. “Here I may stand beside Thee …”
    I can provide a picture of the altar to any interested individuals.

  3. Michael Zamzow
    March 8th, 2007 at 22:52 | #3

    The website of Luther in Braunschweig (http://www.luther-in-bs.de/gerhardt.htm) has a great biography of Gerhardt. The description of what Gerhardt was up against is described in a way that shakes us out of our Rodney King illusions. Here is a hasty translation.
    The Calvinists at that time behaved toward Lutherans with the same arrogance with which the representatives of “modern”, so-called historical-critical Biblical interpretation behave toward those Christians who “still” consider the Bible to be God’s Word. Calvin had asserted for himself the claim that he actually understood Luther better than Luther understood himself. In the catechism of the Calvinists (Heidleberg Catechism the question (78) is posed: “Do bread and wine become the real Body and the Blood of Christ?” The answer is a clear “no” with the additional comment: “so the holy bread in the supper does not become the Body of Christ itself, even if the sacrament is traditionally called the body of Christ.” And the Holy Mass is shortly thereafter termed “blasted idolotry.” With these statements the Calvinists targeted not just the Roman, but equally the Lutheran Mass.
    For decades Calvinist minded preachers tried to gain influence in Berlin. In 1613 Elector Joh Sigismund fell away from the Lutheran confession and converted to the Reformed faith. There was an uproar in Berlin in 1615. The trigger was iconoclasm which took place in the Berlin cathedral. The year before the church had been confiscated from the Lutherans and turned over to the Calvinists even though there was only a handful of them in Berlin. They consisted for the most part of courtiers and the court preacher who were of Reformed background.
    The Calvinists removed all the precious art from the ancient cathedral. They tore the crucifixes out and shatttered the pictures whose rubble the threw in the river. They smashed the baptismal font and eliminated the altars. The left the house of God barren and empty except for a simple table in the chancel. After that the majority of Berliners, who were of a Lutheran persuasion,–the Berliners were still pious back then!–defended themselves with public uproar.
    Over the years the Calvinists tried again and again to assert themselves and were supported in their efforts by the Elector. Thus the conflicts escalated–exacerbated by the Great Elector abolishing the subscription of pastors to the Formula of Concord. With the renewal of an edict from 1614 he forbade clergy to speak about the matter from the pulpit. He forbade his subjects to study theology and philosophy in Wittenberg.
    Can one really appreciate Gerhardt if one plays down his orthodox Lutheran commitment. Do his hymns speak from the depths if they are made shallow expressions of a generic Protestantism?

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