F OR MOST OF HIS CHILDHOOD, YOUTH, AND MATURITY, PAUL GERHARDT, WHO WAS BORN ON MARCH 12, 1607, IN GRÄFENHAINICHEN, GERMANY , NEAR WITTENBERG, LIVED THROUGH ONE OF THE WORST CALAMITIES OF CENTRAL EUROPE---—THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR (1618-48).
Yet “the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression” in his hymns, wrote Catherine Winkworth (1837-1878), whose English translations of Gerhardt’s verses reflect their purty of thought, beauty, and elegant iambic meter.
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 . So it seems timely 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 tempesst
Along their thunderous ways
Will find for you a pathway
And guide you all your days . (LSB 754).
This was written in 1653 while Germany was still in ruins mourning the loss of 20 to 30 percent of its population.
A remarkable mix of Trost und Trotz (consolation and defiance) lends Gerhardt’s hymns their unique allure, according to Heidelberg theologian Christian Moller. This defiance is directed against pain, while consolation comes from his trust in God’s governance and goodness and the knowledge that all torment will pass. Gerhardt’s genius lies in his insight that one would not work without the other.
Among the 17 Gerhardt hynins in the new Lutheran Service Book, there is one that reflects this aspect of 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).
Paul Gerhardt ranks the second-most important crafter of hymns in German Protestantism, after Martin Luther, but he had worthy contemporaries. As the Swedes laid siege to the town of Eilenburg, fellow Saxon pastor Martin Rinckart wrote, “Now thank we all our Go(l with hearts and hands and voices”— and this while burying an average of 50 plague victims every day!
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.” MöIler went on, “l do wish the days of doctrinal clarity came hack ..... leading to more clarity in people’s lives and song.”
Rev. Henry Gericke, organist and choirmaster at Coneordia Seminary, St. Louis, 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.” Indleed he should. This author of 139 hymns led a life bearing the cross.
There was the Thirty Years’ War when Gerhardt 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 St. Nicholas Church in Berlin due to the political war between Lutherans and Calvinists. Ministers of both attacked each other ferociously in their sermons.
In 1665, the Elector Frederick tried to put a stop to that, insisting that Lutheran pastors sign a document pledging not to criticize Reformed theology. 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. But after the elector’s edict, Gerhardt became very outspoken. Though ill, he assembled Berlin’s Lutheran pastors at his sickbed, imploring them to remain steadfast in asserting their right to free speech.
He later called the loss of his influential position “a small sort of Berlin martyrdom,” which was all the more egregious as he was seperated from his organist, Johann Cruger, who had put a great many of Gerhardt’s poems to music . A century and a half later 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 one of them.
Yet there was also a fascinating ecumenical side to Gerhardt’s work . Only 30 years after his death in 1676 in Lübben, then Saxony, Gerhardt became perhaps the first Lutheran poet to have a song published in a Roman Catholic hymnal: “0 Sacred Head Now Wounded” (LSB 449), perhaps Gerhardt’s most haunting verses.
Ironically, the sanctuary in Ltibben, where this confessional Lutheran last served, and where he is buried, is no longer a Lutheran but a Union church. The church bears his name, though: Paul Gerhardt Kirche. And there an inscription at his portrait reminds visitors of his “little sort of Berlin nmrtyrdom”: “Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus”—a theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve.
Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto is director
of the Institute on Lay Vocation
at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Mo.
The. LUTHERAN WITNESS Magazine
March 2007. Vol. 126 No. 3 (Pgs.24-25)
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993