Philipp Nicolai was born at Mengeringhousen in Waldeck (near Arolsen), Hessen, Germany, August 10, 1556, the son of a Lutheran pastor, Dieterich Nicolai. In 1575 Nicolai entered the University of Erfurt, and in 1576 he went to Wittenberg graduating in 1579 (D.D. at Wittenberg July 4, 1594). For four years after his graduation, he lived at Volkhardinghousen, near Mengeringhousen, and frequently preached for his father. In August, 1583, he was appointed Lutheran preacher at Herdecke, but found many difficulties there, the members of the Town Council being Roman Catholics. After the invasion by the Spanish troops in April, 1586, his colleague re-introduced the Mass, and Nicolai resigned his post.
In the end of 1586 he was appointed diaconus at Niederwildungen, near Waldeck, and in 1587 he became pastor there.1 He then became, in November, 1588, chief pastor at Altwildungen, and also Hofprediger (Court Preacher) to the widowed Countess Margaretha of Waldeck, and tutor to her son, Wilhelm Ernst, Count of Waldeck in Wildungen, Hessen (died at Tubingen, September 16, 1598, the result of the bubonic plague, and who formed the inspiration of one of Nicolai's greatest hymns, Wachet Auf). In this position he found himself in disagreement with the Calvinists on the meaning of the Lord's Supper (the "the Sacramentarian controversy"), and was, in Sept. 1592, inhibited from preaching by Count Franz of Waldeck. However, the prohibition was soon removed, and in the Synod of 1593 held at Mengeringhausen, he found all the clergy of the principality of Waldeck willing to agree to the Formula of Concord.
He went to Unna in Westphalia in 1596 where he again was involved in controversy with the Calvinists. The city of Unna fell victim to the plague in 1597 and 1598, which took the lives of over 1,300 of its inhabitants. From the parsonage which overlooked the churchyard, Nicolai was deeply saddened by the continual burials. On one day thirty graves were dug. On December 27, 1598, Nicolai was forced to flee Unna before the invasion of the Spaniards, and did not return till the end of April, 1599.
From these scenes of death he turned to the study of St. Augustine's "City of God" and the contemplation of the eternal life, and so absorbed himself in them that he kept himself "comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content." It was in the midst of this distress (e.g., 1599) that he wrote a series of meditations to which he gave the title, Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens, ("Joyful Mirror of the Eternal Life"; opens in a new window at an external site). It was a book of pious and devout reflection, which included two hymns that quickly attained a wide popularity, and are indeed admirable for their fervor of emotion and mastery over difficult but musical rhythms.
Previously, the hymns of the Reformation had been distinguished by their simplicity and appropriateness to church use; their models had been found in the earlier Latin hymns, or in the Psalms of the Old Testament and the hymns handed down to us by St. Luke.
Now, however, in Nicolai's writings there is a new style, afterwards very prevalent, which is similar to some of the later mediaeval hymns addressed to the Virgin and saints, and finds its scriptural ground in the Song of Solomon and the Apocalypse. As yet most hymns were addressed to God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, or to the Holy Trinity, or in the case of hymns of sorrow and penitence to the Savior. But afterwards the mystical union of Christ with the soul became a favorite subject; more secular allusions and similes were admitted, and a class of hymns begins to grow up, called in Germany "Hymns of the Love of Jesus."
Of his hymns, only four seemed to have been ever printed. Three of his hymns were first published in his devotional work entitled Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens, published at Frankfurt-am-Main, 1599. Two of them — "Wachet auf" and "Wie schön" — rank as classical and epoch-making.
"Wake, awake, for night is flying,
The watchmen on the heights are crying,
Awake, Jerusalem, at last!"
which is well known in England from the use of its splendid chorale in Mendelssohn's "Elijah" to the words, "Sleepers, wake, a voice is calling." The opening lines of Wake, awake are probably borrowed from a medieval "watch song", but while those voices were admonishing the workers of darkness to flee from discovery, "with Nicolai it is a summons to the children of light to awaken to their promised reward and full felicity." The tune to the lyrics is also ascribed to Nicolai (although adapted from an earlier hymn by Hans Sachs).
The other hymn, "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" ("O Morning Star, How Fair And Bright") also possesses a very fine chorale; and so popular did it soon become, that its tune was often chimed by city chimes, lines and verses from it were printed by way of ornament on the common earthenware of the country, and it was invariably used at weddings and certain festivals. It is still to be found in all German hymn-books, but in a very modified form to suit more modern tastes.
This hymn marks the transition from the objective churchly period to the more subjective and experimental period of German hymn writing. It began a long series of Hymns of Love to Christ as the Bridegroom of the Soul, to which Franck and Scheffler contributed such beautiful examples. Marked by a new sincerity, they gave the church a new voice in song. Published just a few short years before Johann Arndt's True Christianity, they reflect a similar feeling of devotion about Jesus.
Finally, in April 1601, he was elected chief pastor of Katharinenkirche (St. Katherine’s Church) in Hamburg, where he began his duties August 6, 1601. In Hamburg, Nicolai was universally esteemed, was a most popular and influential preacher — he was hailed as a "second Chrysostom" — and was regarded as a "pillar" of the Lutheran church. In his private life he seemed to have been most lovable and estimable, although some of his writings, according to Julian, were "polemical" and "acrid in tone."
On October 22, 1608, he took part in the ordination of a colleague, the diaconus Penshorn, and returned home feeling unwell. He developed a violent fever, and died October 26, 1608. He was buried at Katharinenkirche, Hamburg. Sadly, the Katharinenkirche was almost destroyed in World War II, though it was restored in the 1950’s.
Besides his fame as a preacher, his reputation rests mainly on his hymns.
1. According to another account, from 1586 to 1588, Nicolai had moved to Köln (Cologne), a thoroughly Catholic city, and was a preacher of the Lutheran congregations, who at that time met secretly in houses. Return
Rev. Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, Fourth Edition, 1908)
John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology. 1892, 1907; reprinted by Dover, 1957.