The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Paul Gerhardt
(1607-1676)

Engraving of Paul GerhardtIt was at the zenith of the seventeenth century that the religious song of Germany found its purest and sweetest expression in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, who may be said to be the typical poet of the Lutheran Church, as Herbert is of the English. George Herbert's poems are meant to be read and meditated upon; they constantly remind us that the writer was a man of high breeding and culture, no less than an earnest Christian; Gerhardt's are intended to be set to music and sung in church, or learnt by heart by the children at home, and as constantly reveal the homeliness and simplicity, the deeply devout and quietly courageous spirit of the Lutheran pastor.

Paul Gerhardt, the "sweet singer of Lutheranism" who lived during the religious wars of the 17th century, was born on March 12, 1607 in Gräfenhaim, near Wittenberg, Germany. He was the son of Christian Gerhardt, burgermeister of Grafenhaynichen, near Wittenberg. Trained to be a Lutheran pastor, he matriculated as a student at the University of Wittenberg January 2, 1628, where Martin Luther had taught a century before. 

He seems to have resided in Wittenberg until 1642 or 1643, when while he was waiting for a call, he taught the children of Andreas Barthold (one of whom, Anna Maria, he married in 1655). He had already written many hymns, but was as yet unable to publish them. During that time he had the good fortune to meet Johann Crüger, the cantor and organist at St. Nicholas Church in Berlin. Together they produced some of the greatest Lutheran chorales, including "Awake, My Heart with Gladness," ("Auf, auf, mein Herz"), "Now All the Woods Are Sleeping," "All My Heart this Night Rejoices," among others. Gerhardt's hymns combine an objective faith in justification as a free gift from God with his warm subjective experience of that gift. In all, he wrote 123 hymns, many of which are still well known and beloved throughout the world.

The whole of his youth and early manhood fell in the time of war. That it must have been a period full of disappointment and hope deferred for him, is clear enough when we find a man of his powers at the age of forty-five still only a private tutor and candidate for holy orders.

However, in 1651, Gerhardt was appointed, at the recommendation of the Berlin clergy, Lutheran Probst (chief pastor) at Mittenwalde, near Berlin. Several of his hymns were published in 1653 in the Berlin Hymn Book, and later in other collections in Brandenburg and Saxony; and became at once very popular with the people.

At Mittenwalde he passed six quiet years, during which he began to publish his hymns, which immediately attracted great attention, and were quickly adopted into the hymn-books of Brandenburg and Saxony. His name thus became known, and in 1657 he was invited to the great church of St. Nicholas, in Berlin, where his life was soon both a busy and an honorable  one. He worked most assiduously and successfully in his pastoral duties; he brought out many hymns, which were caught up by the people much as Luther's had been of old; and he was the favorite preacher of the city, whom crowds flocked to hear.

He is described to us as a man of middle height, of quiet but firm and cheerful bearing; while his preaching is said to have been very earnest and persuasive, and full of Christian love and charity, which he practiced as well as preached by never turning a beggar from his doors, and receiving widows and orphans who needed help and shelter into his own house. His religion and his temperament alike made him cheerful, and not all the many disappointments of his life seem ever to have embittered his mood; but he had a very tender and scrupulous conscience, and wherever a question of conscience seemed to him to be involved, he was liable to great mental conflict and an exaggerated estimate of trifles.

In 1657, Gerhardt returned to Berlin as third diaconus of the large and influential St. Nicholas' church. In theology he was an ardent Lutheran, and before long his zeal for his Church was put to the test. Prussia was at that time governed by Frederick William I., "the Great Elector," whose memory is still revered in the country as the founder of its greatness. The mass of his people were Lutherans, but he himself belonged to the Reformed Church, to which his grandfather, the Elector Sigismund, had seceded from political motives. At the Peace of Westphalia, he was the one important German prince who acted as spokesman for the Calvinistic churches, and it was through his efforts they obtained the same legal recognition as the Lutherans.

His next endeavor was to make peace between the two Churches within his own dominions. He saw clearly enough the waste of strength and the evil passions caused by their disunion and perpetual controversies, and he is not accused of any unjust bias or partiality towards his own Church, but the times were not then ripe for such an attempt, and he met with little success. In 1662 and 1663 he summoned the leading men of both Churches to a series of conferences on the points of dispute between them, in the hopes of thus arriving at some approximation of opinion, or at least at a declaration that the points of difference were "non-essential." But the result was the precise reverse of the Elector's hopes; the more the doctors argued the farther apart they found themselves.

The Calvinism of those days was not of the modified type to which we are accustomed [in the mid-1800s], but advocated what would now be termed "extreme views," while the Lutherans, on the other hand, were very rigid in their own definitions of doctrine, and were in the habit of preaching against the Reformed Church with a scornful and bitter vehemence.

Gerhardt, indeed, was not among those who did so; his sermons, as well as his writings, were so free from controversy that many Calvinists attended his services, and his hymns had no greater admirer than the pious Electress Louisa, who herself belonged to the Reformed Church. But the whole cast of his thought was intrinsically anti-Calvinistic: that God is a loving Father over all His creatures, and that Christ died for all men, are the deepest, ever-recurring tones of his theology; and hence he found it impossible to allow that the points of difference between himself and the Reformed Church were "non-essential."

From the conferences he at first hoped a great deal; he was diligent in attending them, and drew up most of the statements in explanation or defense of doctrine on the Lutheran side. But the Elector, wearied by the ill-success of these meetings, put a stop to them in 1664, and published an edict requiring the ministers of both communions to abstain from attacking each other's doctrines in the pulpit or elsewhere with harshness or want of charity; and in 1665 he announced his intention of demanding from every beneficed Lutheran clergyman his subscription to a document pledging himself to observe the terms of this edict.

This demand at once created the greatest excitement throughout the country, and in many places caused disturbances; for the stricter Lutherans, priests and people alike, regarded it as prohibiting the use of one of the recognized standards of the Lutheran faith, the "Formula Concordia," in which the doctrines of the Reformed Church were condemned in strong terms, and considered it therefore to be an infringement on their legal rights, and an unwarrantable interference on the part of the civil power with the liberty of preaching.

Accordingly a great number of the clergy refused to sign, and were deposed; and these were in general strongly supported by their flocks. Nearly the whole of the Berlin clergy took this part, and one of the most resolute among them was Paul Gerhardt, who being very ill at the time, assembled his brethren around his sick-bed, and entreated them to be steadfast in asserting their right to freedom of speech.

Such a man's refusal could not be passed over, and early in 1666 he was deprived of his appointment; and when it appeared that many of his congregation were in the habit of resorting to his private house for religious counsel and worship, he was interdicted from performing any function of his office even in private. Of his deprivation he had said to some condoling friends "that it was but a small Berlin sort of martyrdom;" but this last prohibition wounded him deeply, and he had much private sorrow at the same time.

Three of his five children had already died in infancy, and now he lost one of his two remaining sons, the child on whose death he wrote his touching hymn,

"Thou'rt mine, yes, still Thou art mine own,"

while his wife, worn out by sorrow and anxiety, fell into a long and slow decline. When she died, Gerhardt was left with only one child, a boy of 6 years. Many of his most beautiful hymns were written at this time, and among others, "If God be on my side."

Meanwhile the city of Berlin did not take the loss of its favorite preacher quietly. Meetings were held and petitions addressed to the Elector--first by the burghers and guilds of trade, then by the Town Council, and finally by the Estates of Brandenburg, whose entreaty was said to have the support in private of the Electress herself.

Then the Elector gave way, and declared that considering the tender conscience of the preacher Paul Gerhardt, and that he had never been guilty of bitterness and uncharitableness in the pulpit, an exception should be made in his case, and he should be permitted to resume his office without subscription. The whole city was rejoiced, but now a new difficulty arose. The Elector had sent word by one of his secretaries to Paul Gerhardt of his re-appointment, but had said also that he relied on Gerhardt's well-known moderation and loyalty, that even without subscription he would act in conformity with the spirit of the edict.

This message perplexed Gerhardt's conscience once more; an implied undertaking was, he said, to a Christian man as binding as any subscription could be, and he therefore felt himself still unable to accept office on these terms. A long period of fruitless negotiations ensued, and much mental distress on Gerhardt's part; for these new scruples appeared even to many of his friends exaggerated. But how real they were to himself, is shown by his persistency, and his letters to the Town Council and Elector.

"It was only the most urgent necessity," he writes to the latter, "which induced me to retire from my pastoral office, and should I now accept it again on these terms, I should do myself a great wrong; and, so to speak, with my own hands inflict on my soul that wound which I had formerly, with such deep anguish of heart, striven to avert. I fear that God, in whose presence I walk on earth, and before whose judgment-seat I must one day appear; and as my conscience hath spoken from my youth up, and yet speaks, I can see it no otherwise than that if I should accept my office I should draw on myself God's wrath and punishment."

Engraving of Paul GerhardtThe Elector now commanded the Council to choose some one in Gerhardt's place; and Gerhardt accepted the post of Archdeacon of Lübben an der Spree, in Saxony in November 1668. His removal there was, however, delayed by the long sickness and death of his wife; and it was not till June, 1669 that he entered on his new duties. Here he spent the last seven years of his life; but they were years of sadness, for his wife was gone, his only child had more than one dangerous illness, and he was living in a land of strangers. Lübben was a small place, and the Town Council was composed of rough and half-educated people, who subjected their clergyman to many annoyances. His refuge and refreshment was in his gift of song, "under circumstances which," says one of his contemporaries, "would have made most men cry rather than sing."

 His death occurred on May 27, 1676 in his seventieth year, 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 painting of him for the church where it still hangs. Beneath it one can read the inscription, "Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus" ("A theologian sifted in Satan's sieve").

He was buried at Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Lübben an der Spree, Spreewald, Germany. His remains are in a crypt below the altar.

Compared with most authors of his time, Paul Gerhardt wrote very little. He composed only one hundred and twenty-three hymns, which appeared at intervals from the year 1649 onwards, many of them for the first time in the "Praxis Pietatis Melica," a collection of hymns and tunes by Johann Crüger, the famous organist and composer of chorales. After Gerhardt's death they were republished separately, revised from his own MSS. by his son.

As a poet he undoubtedly holds the highest place among the hymn-writers of Germany. His hymns seem to be the spontaneous outpouring of a heart that overflows with love, trust, and praise; his language is simple and pure; if it has sometimes a touch of homeliness, it has no vulgarism,1 and at times it rises to a beauty and grace, which always give the impression of being unstudied, yet could hardly have been improved by art. His tenderness and fervor never degenerate into the sentimentality and petty conceits which were already becoming fashionable in his days; nor his penitence and sorrow into that morbid despondency which we find in Gryphius, and for which the disappointments of his own life might have furnished some excuse.

If he is not altogether free from the long-windedness and repetition which are the besetting sins of so many German writers, and especially hymn-writers, he at least more rarely succumbs to them: and in his days they were not considered a blemish. One of his contemporaries, a certain Andreas Bucholz, who wrote a great deal of religious poetry which was then highly esteemed formally announces in his preface that he has spun out his poems as long as he could, for he observed that when people were reading sacred poems at home, they preferred long ones.

Gervinus, a severe judge of sacred poetry in general, says of Gerhardt: "If one man among the poets of the seventeenth century makes an attractive impression on us, it is Gerhardt. He recurred, as no one else had done, to Luther's genuine type of the popular religious song, only with such modifications as the altered circumstances demanded.

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 a loving and benignant Man, whom he addresses with reverential intimacy. With Luther, it was the belief in free grace and the work of Atonement, in the Redemption which had burst the gates of hell, which inspired the Christian singer with his joyous confidence; with Gerhardt it is his faith in the love of God.

Like the old poets of the people, he is pious, naive, earnest, without effort or affectation; his style is as simple as refreshing, and attractive as his tone of thought." Many of his hymns are already well known to English readers by translations from the time of Wesley downwards. Two of Wesley's translations were Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me and Commit Thou All Thy Griefs.

Hymns:

1.All My Heart This Night Rejoices

2.Awake, My Heart, with Gladness

3.Before Thy Manger, Lord, I Stand

4.Commit Thou All Thy Griefs

5.Evening and Morning

6.Give to the Winds Thy Fears

7.Immanuel, We Sing Thy Praise

8.Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me

9.O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?

10.O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

11.Sing, My Soul, to God Who Made Thee

 

Sources:

The Cyberhymnal

Notes from the Hymnuts

Christian Classics Ethereal Library for a biography of Gerhardt [Page has disappeared]

Rev. Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, Fourth Edition, 1908)

Catherine Winkworth, Paul Gerhardt, from Christian Singers of Germany, Christian Classics Ethereal Library [Pages have disappeared]

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