Paul Gerhardt, Lutheran musical giant
After 400 years, his voice still stirs the church
In an age of rock ’n’ roll, heavy metal and religious praise music, does a 400-year-old Lutheran churchman/musician have anything to say that’s worth hearing?
Consider this. As the darkness of Nazi terrorism settled over the Lutheran homeland, Adolf Hitler’s “Aryan” (super-race) myth came under fire from the German churches. To counter it, Lutheran apologists quoted stanzas from a hymn by Paul Gerhardt, reminding the dictator and his party that, far from “super,” the human race — in all its expressions — is broken and fallen. Paul Gerhardt helped them say it clearly.
Not only has Gerhardt spoken truth to power from the grave, his musical texts have spoken confidently and comfortingly through Lu-theran worship services on both sides of the Atlantic for the past 400 years.
The composer, who Lu-theran music scholar Victor Gebauer has called “Lu-theranism’s greatest hymn writer after Martin Luther,” was born in 1607 near Wittenberg, Germany. Of Paul Gerhardt’s nearly 140 hymn texts, several are still sung in American churches. Both the new ELCA and LCMS hymnbooks include his texts. There are nine in the ELCA hymnal, 18 in the new LCMS worship book.
Readers of Metro Lutheran will likely recognize many of Gerhardt’s hymn titles: “Awake, My Heart, With Gladness,” “Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow,” “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.”
The parish pastor who generated such memorable hymn texts lived a life forged by adversity. He lived through the horrendous Thirty Years’ War, during which Lutheran and Roman Catholic armies killed millions of Germans, spreading poverty and plague. All of Gerhardt’s children died young except for one son.
Striving to serve as a faithful Lutheran pastor in the city of Berlin, he came up against a government ex-pecting him to make unacceptable theological compromises. He gave up his pastorate rather than cave in.
(Incidentally, the church building in which Gerhardt served, in “old city” Berlin, still stands. Sadly, it is a museum today.)
Gerhardt built on Martin Luther’s strong hymn-writing foundation, but he added a more personal touch to his texts. One musicologist suggests, “Both were grounded in the objective truth of salvation, yet Gerhardt ex-pressed more human feeling and emotion than Luther.”
According to Gebauer, “Gerhardt defined the transition from ‘we’ hymns to ‘I’ hymns. Theologically, he was orthodox; in hymnody, he probably was a pietist.”
When Gerhardt died, in 1676, his congregation put up his portrait, beneath which appeared this inscription: Theologus in cribo Satane tentatus, the translation for which is: “A theologian tested in Satan’s sieve.”
Writing in the ELS monthly journal, Lutheran Sentinel, Erik Gernander says, “Faith sees the true God, who ‘was for thy pardon smitten’ (to quote Gerhardt). This is the faith that every true Christian has. Such a faith is not the possession of pastors, theologians and renowned hymn-writers alone. It is confessed by everyone who … in heart and soul listens simply to the comforting and certain word of God.”
There were many great Lutheran hymn-writers. (Ge-bauer suggests we’re in a great period for hymn-writing right now, with texts from writers like Herbert Brokering enriching our common life.) But Gerhardt is worth remembering and celebrating, even after 400 years.