Lutheran hymns for terrible times
Lutherans have a unique history when it comes to hymns. Although a visit to some of our congregations might make one wonder whether the nickname was any longer justified, the original Lutherans, from 1517 forward, really did become a “singing church.”
Martin Luther wrote some of the first hymns for the Lutheran movement. “A Mighty Fortress” has been called the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” And the solid hymnody that came to be known as the Lutheran chorale made it clear to those both within and beyond the Lutheran Church that this denomination affirmed solid, biblically grounded, God-centered texts and rugged, durable melodies.
A unique chapter in the history of Lutheran hymnody was written during one of the most frightening periods in the history of the church. By the early 17th century, Roman Catholic church leaders — as well as military captains — thought they saw their chance to exterminate Lutheranism once and for all. They launched a bloody campaign designed to force Lutheran congregations back into the Roman fold. The battle raged primarily in Germany, between 1618-1648 — hence, its name, “the Thirty Years’ War.”
It has been said that the Thirty Years’ War was a crucible in which Lutheranism was tested and found durable.
It is is hard to exaggerate the damage this bloody conflict did to Germany. Fully one-third of the German population was exterminated. Roman Catholic armies threatened for a period to win the day. In its darkest hour, Lutheranism was rescued by a Swedish army under the leadership of its Lutheran king, Gustavus Adolphus. (The Minnesota college with his name has a bronze bust of Gustavus on display on its campus mall.)
Many powerful Lutheran hymns of faith were created during this terrible time. One of the most famous, and most enduring, is one that Lutherans and other Christians often sing as though it were intended for use in happy times. In fact, Pastor Martin Rinkart’s “Now Thank We All Our God” was set down on paper during a time of terror.
His city, Eilenberg (near Martin Luther’s birth- and death-city, Eisleben) fell under siege from invading armies. A pestilence ravaged the town and famine killed many that disease did not. During this dark period Rinkart conducted funerals for nearly 5,000 people, including that of his own wife. In the midst of it all, he wrote this tune often sung at Thanksgiving services. (Contrary to what some believe, the hymn was not written to celebrate the end of the war; it was completed years earlier, in the midst of the fighting.)
Out of the midst of conflict arise hymns for the ages
Other notable Lutheran hymn writers from this period include Johann Heermann and Johann Crueger. Heermann wrote the text for “Ah, Holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?,” while Crueger composed the melody.
Johann Michael Altenburg created “Fear not, thou faithful Christian flock,” considered by some musicologists to be one of the greatest hymns of Christian hymnody. During the war years, Altenburg served a congregation near Erfurt, where Martin Luther once attended university. Altenburg’s congregation lost 600 members due to wartime plague.
Johann Rist, who experienced the plundering of his home and loss of most of his possessions in 1643 while serving a Lutheran congregation near Hamburg, still managed to compose 659 hymns, two of the most familiar of which are “Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly light” and “O living bread from heaven.”
The Lutheran chorale made it clear that this denomination affirmed solid, biblically grounded, God-centered texts and rugged, durable melodies.
It has been said that the Thirty Years’ War was a crucible in which Lutheranism was tested and found durable. Historians find high irony in the reality that, when the fighting ended with the Peace of Westphalia, the territories that each faith group — Lutherans and Roman Catholics — ended up controlling were essentially the same as those they had possessed at the outset of the war. The boundaries didn’t change much, but Germany was crippled economically and politically for generations. (Many in the first great wave of Lutheran immigrants coming to the U.S. left their ruined farms, shops, and homes following this war and migrated to Pennsylvania and adjoining states.)
The sources of Lutheran hymnody are diverse. Modern Lutheran hymnals contain far more than solid German hymns (just ask a Scandinavian, an Anglican, an African, or a Latin American). But the unique circumstances of the Thirty Years’ War provided some of the most dearly-bought, and for some the most beloved, hymnody in Lutheranism’s musical treasury.
Michael L. Sherer is editor emeritus of Metro Lutheran. A retired Lutheran pastor, he lives with his wife Kathe in Waverly, Iowa.