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"A Goodly Heritage" (30): Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)

R Cargill, St Monans

German Hymnwriters

No survey of our goodly heritage of hymns would be complete without considering those produced in post-Reformation Germany. After all, it was in Luther's Germany that the Reformation took root and bore fruit before spreading to the rest of Europe and the New World. Luther's own hymns are still appreciated, our best known one being A mighty fortress is our God.

Luther's life ended in 1546. In the next two centuries men like Gerhardt, Tersteegen and Zinzendorf carried the torch forward. Their names appear in our hymnbooks, for since their time God's people have come to value the depth and sincerity of their hymns.

We must not forget that were written in German with words set to German melodies. For our benefit they had to be translated and then set to other tunes. This vital task was accomplished by several scholarly Christians, among them Frances Bevan and John Wesley who carries the credit of doing the most and doing it so well. Because of translation variations, some of the hymns we will mention have more than one rendering.

It is worth remembering that translation of hymns and setting them to appropriate tunes is not new! The oldest is of course the Hebrew Psalms translated into our English Bibles, with metrical versions produced later for congregational singing, as in the Scottish Psalter.¹ Similarly, missionaries have skilfully translated the hymns we sing into the vernacular of believers in many different countries all over the world. What a help and blessing that has been to so many!

Paul Gerhardt's Life

Sometimes called the "sweet singer of Lutheranism", Paul Gerhardt was born on 12th March, 1607 in Gräfenhaim, near Wittenberg. He trained to be a Lutheran pastor at the University of Wittenberg where Martin Luther had taught a century before. 

He became a celebrated preacher, but this was the time of the dreadful Thirty Years War in Germany.² He was unable to take up his ministry until he was about 44 years old. He found employment first as a private tutor to a family in Wittenberg. His life was full of turmoil. In 1651 he was finally appointed to the country parish of Mittenwalde, near Berlin, where he spent six good years. Several of his hymns were published in 1653 in the Berlin Hymn Book, and his name became well known. In 1655 he married Anna Maria Barthold, from the family he had tutored. They had seven children, five of whom died in infancy.

In 1657 he was invited to the great Lutheran church of St Nicholas in Berlin, where he became the city's favourite preacher. He spent nine happy years there, enjoying much love and esteem, but it was not to continue.

Frederick William, the Grand Elector of Brandenburg, belonged to the Reformed Church. He was distressed to see among his people so many bitter religious controversies, and so he tried to bring together the Lutheran and Reformed churches. After numerous conferences aimed at unity, and edicts prohibiting mutual insults or the use offensive language between the opposite factions, he found his task impossible. Frustrated, in 1664 he published an edict which required each to abstain from attacking the other's doctrines, and demanded all Lutherans to subscribe to it.

Many refused to subscribe, including Gerhardt who felt strongly that to do so would compromise his conscience, and so he was removed from his church in 1666. Driven from home, he and his broken-hearted wife, with their two surviving children, became wandering exiles for two years. At a country inn one evening, thinking about his trials, he went outside to pray. His mind turned to Psalm 37.5: "Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass". Inspired and comforted, he put his thoughts into poetry and so we have his hymn Commit thou all thy griefs... The translation by John Wesley has fifteen verses but most of our hymnbooks have selected only five of them.

Just after this he was offered a post in Lübben in Saxony, but he was unable to go there for another year due to His wife's illness, then her death. It was there that he spent the last seven sad years of his life, for his wife was gone, his only child of six was often seriously ill, and he was living in a strange land. His refuge and refreshment was in his gift of song, "under circumstances which would have made most men cry rather than sing", says one of his contemporaries.

He died on 27th May, 1676, and his last words were a line from one of his own hymns, "Us no death has power to kill". The Lübben congregation commissioned a life-sized portrait of him, still hanging in their church. Beneath it is the inscription, in Latin, A Theologian Sifted in Satan's Sieve.

His Hymns

Of Gerhardt's 123 hymns, only a few are familiar to us, but they reveal his devout and courageous spirit. Here is a short list with the places where they appear in our hymnbooks.³

O Head so full of bruises LL 94; BHB 187

(Alternatively O Sacred Head, Now Wounded)

A Rock that stands for ever LL 321; BHB 9

(selected from 12 verses all of which are beautiful)

Jesus, Thy boundless love to me LL 351

Through waves, through clouds and storms LL 309

(from Commit thou all thy griefs...as above;

also sometimes Give to the winds thy fears).

Some lesser known ones which are worth looking up are:

Awake, my heart, with gladness

Before Thy manger, Lord, I stand

Immanuel, we sing Thy praise

Sing, my soul, to God who made thee

Lord, Thou hast drawn us after Thee

O Lord, Thy rich, Thy boundless love

We go to meet the Saviour

Our God is our salvation.

Someone has commented: "In Luther's time the old wrathful, implacable God of the Romanists had assumed the heavenly aspect of grace and compassion; with Gerhardt the Merciful and Just One is loving and benignant whom he addresses with reverential intimacy. With Luther, it was the belief in free grace and the work of Atonement...with Gerhardt it is his faith in the love of God".

His Legacy

On his 70th birthday, shortly before he died, he gave his only surviving son the following advice.

My son knows that from his tender childhood I have given him to the Lord my God as His possession, that he is to become a servant and preacher of His holy Word. He is to remain now in this and not turn away from it, even if he has only few good days in it. For the good Lord knows how to handle it and how sufficiently to replace external troubles with internal happiness of the heart and joy of the spirit.

Study holy theology in pure schools and at unfalsified universities and beware of the syncretists, for they seek what is temporal and are faithful to neither God nor men. In your common life do not follow evil company but rather the will and command of your God.


(1) Do nothing evil in the hope that it will remain secret, for nothing is spun so small that it is not seen in the light of day.

(2) Outside of your office and vocation do not become angry. If you notice that anger has heated you up, remain still and speak not so much as a word until you have first prayed the Ten Commandments and the Christian Creed silently.

(3) Be ashamed of the lusts of the flesh, and when you one day come to the years in which you can marry, then marry with God and with the good advice of pious, faithful, and sensible people.

(4) Do good to people even if they have nothing with which to repay you, for the Creator of heaven and earth has long since repaid what humans cannot repay.

(5) Flee from greed as from hell. Be satisfied with what you have earned with honour and a good conscience, even if it is not too much. But if the good Lord gives you something more, ask Him to preserve you from the burdensome misuse of temporal goods.

In summary: Pray diligently, study something honourable, live peacefully, serve honestly, and remain unmoved in your faith and confessing. If you do this, you too will one day die and depart from this world willingly, joyfully, and blessedly. Amen.

Is all that advice not very relevant and necessary today?

¹ The earliest Scottish Psalters were written and revised in 1564, 1615, and 1635.

² From 1618-1648 almost all Europe was at war, initially the Holy Roman Empire against the Protestant States, with an estimated 8,000,000 casualties, and awful suffering among civilian populations.

³ LL = Hymns of Light and Love; BHB = The Believer's Hymnbook.


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