By Simonetta Carr

Erdmann Neumeister and His Pious Orthodoxy

Erdmann Neumeister (1671-1756) hated Pietism but his music was full of vigorous piety and lively devotion. The difference was in the premises. He (as Luther had done before him) sang about a triune God who works in history and draws us to him through the objective, external Word and sacraments. Many Pietists doubted the Trinity and the historicity of Jesus, despised institutions, and encouraged inner devotion and a meticulous introspection that Luther would have called “navel-gazing.”

Neumeister’s Life

            Born at Uechteritz, Germany, from a schoolmaster and organist, Neumeister studied theology and poetry at the University of Leipzig. One of the main subjects of discussion around that time was the recent visit of the popular lecturer August Hermann Francke and his subsequent expulsion from Saxony due to the disputes he generated.

            Francke, a disciple of Philipp Jakob Spener, had become, like his teacher, one of the greatest exponents of a tendency known as Pietism. As most Pietists, Francke belittled ordinary church attendance with its mixture of fervent and indifferent members. He believed Luther’s reformation had not gone far enough, and sought to go further by emphasizing personal experience and heart-felt devotion. In the ensuing debates between Orthodox and Pietists, Neumeister sided with the Orthodox, and maintained that position for the rest of his life.

            After graduating in 1695 with a thesis on German poets, Neumeister remained at the university for some time as lecturer in poetry. Two years later, he accepted a call as assistant pastor at Bibra, about 100 south of Leipzig, where he soon became senior pastor and assistant superintendent of the district. It was around this time that he began writing cantata texts for the chapel of Duke Johann Georg of Saxe-Weissenfels. He might also have come into contact with young Johann Sebastian Bach, who had connections with the ducal family.

            Duke Johann George was impressed with Neumeister’s cantatas, which were innovative for their inclusion of operatic recitatives and arias. In 1704, he invited the pastor to Weissenfels as court preacher and tutor for his first daughter Fredericka. The girl, however, died in 1706, as did two other children of the duke. Two more had died in previous years, leaving the duke and his wife childless for some time.

            Left without a pupil, Erdmann was invited by the Duke's sister, Anna Maria, as senior preacher at her court in Zary, Poland, where he stayed until 1715. At that point, he accepted the calling to pastor St. James's Church at Hamburg, where he continued to preach and write until his death.

            Neumeister was in Hamburg when Bach applied for a position as organist at St. James. Ultimately, the position was given to a man who gave a large donation to the church. Neumeister commented with outrage that the church would reject even “one of the angels of Bethlehem … who played divinely,”[1] if that angel could not produce enough money.

            Ultimately, Bach composed music for at least five of Neumeister's libretti, and the two men continued to share a Lutheran understanding of piety as natural fruit of the proclamation of the gospel.

Opposing Pietism in Prose and Song

            As it so often happens, the controversy between Orthodox and Pietists expressed itself in song. Typical Pietist hymns focused on obedience and emotional responses. For example, in one of his hymns, Francke yearns for God’s “flaming love” to delight his soul,

That all the powers of heart and mind

Are so with Thee united;

That Thou in me and I in Thee,

And yet I cannot cease to be

Forever drawing nearer.[2]

            This language of God in us in a subjective, experiential way was in contrast with the more frequent language of God for us used by Orthodox Lutherans like Neumeister. Persuaded of the power of the gospel to bring life, Neumeister opposed the Pietist bursts of flame by singing, preaching, and writing about solid theological doctrines, the external means of grace, and the liturgical year which Pietists typically despised.

            Advent, for instance, was for Neumeister a time to thank God who “has once again, for an entire year, preserved his holy word and holy sacraments for us, pure and unalloyed.”[3]

            The most obvious evidence of the importance Neumeister gave the sacraments is a hymn on baptism as an external and sure sign and seal of God’s promise. In this context, unity with God is not based on private attempts to draw near to Him but on the objective work of the Holy Spirit.

Satan, hear this proclamation: 

I am baptized into Christ! 

Drop your ugly accusation,

I am not so soon enticed. 

Now that to the font I’ve traveled,

All your might has come unraveled,

And, against your tyranny,

God, my Lord, unites with me.[4]

            Neumeister, who was quick to make a distinction between piety and Pietists (“They talk a lot about piety but they are only Pietists”[5]), was a fervent promoter of the type of piety that is freely generated by the proclamation of the gospel. Instead of urging his congregation to find a closer communion with God in private devotions or in small groups (conventicula) supposedly made up of particularly devoted souls, he encouraged them to take full advantage of God’s means of grace, and “pray devoutly that [God] would continue to grant us this grace and to preserve his precious word and sacraments for us and for our posterity.”[6] In fact, he had no compunctions about calling “devil’s prophets” and “toads and vipers”[7] the Pietists who were encouraging people to move away from these ordinary means.

            Was this an endorsement of sterile formality, as the Pietists suggested? Not for sinners who were fully conscious of their inability to rise to God. For them, Neumeister’s words of assurance were (as they still are for us) a welcome balm.

Now my conscience is at peace,

From the Law I stand acquitted;

Christ hath purchased my release

And my ev'ry sin remitted.

Naught remains my soul to grieve —

"Jesus sinners doth receive."[8]

 



[1] Quoted in Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians, p. 43.

[2] August Hermann Francke, Another Step is Made With God, https://hymnary.org/hymn/HPBU1795/147

[3] Erdmann Neumeister, Christlicher Unterricht wie die h. Adventszeit, das h. Christ-Fest und das Neue Jahr gotgefallig zu feiren sey, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians, Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 1986, p. 4.

[4] Erdmann Neumeister, God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It, https://wmltblog.org/2011/05/gods-own-child-i-gladly-say-it/

[5] Robin A. Leaver, “Religion and Religious Currents,” in Raymond Erickson (ed.), The Worlds of Johann Sebastian Bach, Amadeus Press, 2009, p. 127

[6] Pelikan, Bach Among the Theologians, p. 4.

[7] Robin A. Leaver, “Religion and Religious Currents,” ibid.

[8] Erdmann Neumeister, Jesus Sinners Doth Receive, https://hymnary.org/text/jesus_sinners_doth_receive_word_of_conso

 


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