Paul Gerhardt’s beloved hymns were a product of suffering / By Uwe Siemon-Netto
(An abbreviated version of this text will appear in the March 07 issue of the Lutheran Witness)
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 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 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 Möller. 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 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 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, “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 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 Möller explained Gerhardt’s 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 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 Crüger, who had put many of Gerhardt’s poems to music. In a sense, Gerhardt’s “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 Gerhardt’s 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 Gerhardt’s 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 Satan’s sieve.
Uwe Siemon-Netto is scholar-in-residence at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis