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"A Goodly Heritage" (31): Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769)

R Cargill, St Monans

How often have we sung the following hymn, and felt it was more than words?

Thou hidden Love of God, whose height, Whose depth unfathomed no one knows, I see from far Thy beauteous light, And inly sigh for Thy repose; My heart is pained, nor can it be At rest, till it finds rest in Thee.

In 1729, in the Ruhr valley in Germany, Gerhard Tersteegen wrote these lines expressing his deepest desires after God. From what we know about him, it was much more than words for him. Reading them again carefully and thoughtfully gives an insight into the soul of this dear man, who "being dead yet speaketh".

The original hymn was ten stanzas long, although most of our hymnbooks choose only four or five of them. He first published it in his collection Geistliches Blumengärtlein inniger Seelen (Spiritu­al Flower Garden for Ardent Souls) along with most of his other 110 hymns.

This hymn was skilfully translated for us by John Wesley when he was in Georgia, USA, in 1736. We are indebted to him and to some other translators for making such works accessible to us. A notable one is a lady called Frances Bevan (1827-1909).¹ In 1899 she published Hymns of Ter Steegen and Others, a collection of her translations from several German writers. She was herself a notable hymn writer - for example, the well sung and well loved:

Midst the darkness, storm and sorrow,
One bright gleam I see...

We owe much to the linguistic skills and sanctified scholarship of these and other servants of the Lord. They have added significantly to our goodly heritage. We must not forget either to acknowledge the great debt we owe to those before them who accurately and faithfully translated the Scriptures for the benefit and blessing of us English readers; indeed we similarly acknowledge the valuable work of those up until today who continue that task for the benefit and blessing of many who do not yet have the Bible in their mother tongue.

His Early Background

Gerhard Tersteegen was born on 25th November, 1697, the second youngest among the two daughters and six sons of Henricus and Conera Ter Steegen (née Triboler), a merchant family in Moers, Netherlands. His father, a faithful member of the Reformed Church, died when Gerhard was only six years old. Although his name is almost always shown as the Germanized "Tersteegen", it was originally the Dutch "Gerrit ter Steegen".

Although poor, his mother was able to send him to the elite Adolfinum Grammar School where the emphasis was on learning foreign languages because of Moers' international trade. Latin, German and French as well as the Bible in Hebrew and Greek were in the curriculum. When Gerhard left school shortly before his sixteenth birthday, he was chosen to give the students' annual speech. It was a masterpiece in Latin verse which he composed himself. His teachers and school governors promised him a university scholarship but his mother said no. Her son was to become a merchant like his father and older brothers.

So he entered the commercial world in 1713 to work as an apprentice to his brother-in-law, a merchant at Mühlheim on the Ruhr, then in 1717 he started business on his own. He found, however, that this type of life did not suit his early aspirations after holiness, so he gave up in 1719, tried weaving linen for a short time, and then took up the easier job of weaving silk ribbons. This gave him the time he wanted to pray and meditate.

His lifestyle became most frugal and austere. What little he earned he shared with others more needy than himself. From 1719 to 1724 he suffered an extended period of spiritual depression. He sought holiness by his own efforts, while bewildered at the prosperity of the wicked on one hand and divisions among Christians on the other. He stopped attending the Reformed Church, believing that it was wrong to take "Holy Communion" along with the unconverted. At last, laying aside the rather severe and mystical books he had been studying, and left with only his Bible, he discovered the love of God in Christ. One morning on a journey to a nearby town, at the roadside he received such a realisation of the sufficiency of the redeeming work Christ that his heart found rest in believing. His dark struggle was now replaced by true peace with God. On Maundy Thursday, 1724, he wrote out a solemn covenant with God which he signed with his own blood. He composed a beautiful hymn, translated as How gracious, kind, and good, my great High Priest art Thou. After this, all his writings reflect practical Christianity in a Christ-filled life.

His Christian Service

In 1725, now 28 years old, he became involved in meetings in Mühlheim led by Wilhelm Hoffmann, a licensed preacher of the Reformed Church. Tersteegen soon became known as a teacher among them, and from 1728 his life was entirely given over to spiritual work. He became an itiner­ant preacher in the region, holding home worship and prayer meetings. In private he translated many works by earlier religious writers such as Madame Guyon (1648-1717).²

Although he broke from the Reformed Church, he did not form a new sect or seek a following. His house was known as "The Pilgrim's Cottage", a retreat for men seeking a godly way of life, while he himself was known as "the physician of the poor and forsaken", giving them food and simple remedies. People came from as far away as England to hear him. However, he was barred from preaching in his own country from 1730 to 1750 in a strict law passed against conventicles. This hurt him greatly. He visited Holland annually and preached the gospel to his kinsfolk. He also carried on an extensive correspondence with many people and wrote much. Indeed his voluminous writings even yet await investigation to profit. One volume is called Spiritual Crumbs fallen from the Master's Table, gathered by Good Friends and given to Hungry Hearts.

He resumed his public speaking during 1750-1756, but his energy had so much diminished that from then on he spoke to only very small groups of people. He eventually suffered from dropsy and breathlessness and he died at Mühlheim on 3rd April, 1769.

His Hymns and Poems

We have access to relatively few of his hymns in English, but consider the following which are in Redemption Songs, 145 and 496:

God calling yet! shall I not hear?

Earth's pleasures shall I still hold dear?

These words were written by one who had experienced deep conviction of sin and conversion to Christ; worth singing in a Gospel meeting (but you need deep breaths for the chorus!).

Thou sweet beloved will of God,
My anchor ground, my fortress hill,
My spirit's silent, fair abode,
In Thee I hide me, and am still.

The seven verses of this hymn show his resignation to, or rather his delight in, "that good and acceptable and perfect will of God"; worth reading carefully, singing solemnly and applying daily.

Tersteegen also wrote several great poems. Perhaps his most moving and evocative is the long one called by Mrs Bevan, its translator, Ter Steegen's Golden Timepiece. It has 24 verses, one verse for the events of each hour of the momentous day when the Lord Jesus left the upper room to go to the cross, concluding with His burial the following evening. Available on the internet, it is devotional reading, and good preparation for the Lord's Supper.³

Another short one challenges:

Am I not enough, Mine own? Enough, Mine own, for Thee? Hath the world its palace towers, Garden glades of magic flowers Where thou fain wouldst be?

This chimes well with another verse of the one we started with:

Is there a thing beneath the sun That strives with Thee my heart to share? Ah, tear it thence and reign alone, The Lord of every motion there!

Tersteegen is one of the most important hymn writers from post-Reformation Germany. His inner union with God, his childlike trust, his renunciation of the world and of self, his daily endeavour to live in the presence of God, are the evident hallmarks of his hymns. To be continued.

Additional information:

¹ www.ccel.org/ccel/bevan

² Jeanne Guyon, Wikipedia

³ www.hymnary.org/text/wilt_thou_be_the_sinners servant


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