Paul Gerhardt and His Songs of Confident Hope
Paul Gerhardt and His Songs of Confident Hope
In 1943, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his lonely prison cell, “I’ve lately learnt for the first time to appreciate the hymn, ‘Beside thy cradle here I stand.’ Up to now I hadn't made much of it; I suppose one has to be alone for a long time, and meditate on it, to be able to take it in properly.”
The hymn was just one of the many written by Paul Gerhardt, one of the most influential hymn writers in history. And Bonhoeffer was right. The depth of Gerhardt’s words is often hidden in their apparent simplicity missed by those who read or sing them quickly and let the familiarity of their message get in the way.
Many of Gerhardt’s songs sprung out of painful experiences. Born on March 12, 1607 in Gräfenhaim, near Wittenberg, Germany, he lost both of his parents before he turned 14. In spite of this, he was able to continue his studies, enrolling at the University of Wittenberg with the intention of becoming a pastor. His progress was hindered by the Thirty Years War that devastated most of Europe.
The war affected him directly, particularly when a Swedish army swept through this hometown, burning down 400 buildings, including his family home and church. But that was not all. A plague followed the raid, killing 300 of his townspeople, including his brother Christian. The city of Wittenberg, where Gerhardt lived at the time, was spared enemy attacks but suffered greatly from the plague.
He ended up staying in Wittenberg for about 14 years, working as tutor for the children of a local pastor. In 1642, he moved to Berlin, where he tutored the children of the city’s Chancellor-Advocate, Andreas Barthold.
By that time, he had already written some hymns, but his talents flourished through his collaboration with Johann Crüger, another former student at Wittenberg, who served as cantor and organist at Berlin’s St. Nicholas Church. The two produced some of the greatest Lutheran hymns, including “Awake, My Heart with Gladness” and “All My Heart this Night Rejoices.”
Gerhardt’s call to a pastorate came in 1651, from Mittenwalde, near Berlin. Two years later, he saw several of his hymns published in the Berlin Hymn Book. Soon they were published in other collections, and became quite popular.
Now that he had a more stable vocation, he was able to marry his long-time love, Barthold’s daughter Anna Maria. Together, they had three sons and two daughters.
A Painful Choice
In 1657, Gerhardt was invited to the great church of St. Nicholas, in Berlin, as third pastor. The situation there was different than what he had experienced in Wittenberg. Both the local Elector, Johann Sigismund, and the Great Elector, Frederick William I, were Reformed, at a time when the differences between Reformed and Lutheran beliefs were particularly marked. Calling the Lutheran Gerhardt as pastor might have been part of the two rulers’ attempt to blend their Lutheran and Reformed subjects into a united church.
Gerhardt was a good choice for this purpose, because he preached the simple gospel of Christ, minimizing theological differences, so much that he became a favorite preacher of Frederick William’s wife, the Reformed Louise Henriette.
In 1665, however, the Elector announced his intention of requiring every Lutheran clergyman to subscribe to a document that contradicted some of the Lutheran doctrines (for example, its view on the nature of the Lord’s Supper). When Gerhardt refused, he was removed from office and even forbidden from shepherding his congregation in private.
But Gerhardt’s congregation, including Electress Louise Henriette, protested this decision until the Elector agreed to allow Gerhardt back in the pulpit. The pastor wouldn’t have to sign the prescribed document – as long as he acted in conformity to it.
This last clause bothered Gerhardt's conscience. In reality, he could just do what he had always been doing. But this time he would do so under the implicit assumption that he was denying his convictions on matters he considered essential, such as the Lutheran view of the nature of the Lord’s Supper.
In spite of the insistence and cajoling of many of his congregants, he decided to decline to accept office on these terms.
"It was only the most urgent necessity," he wrote to the Elector, "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."
Gerhardt’s Last Years and Legacy
Following this decision; Gerhardt accepted the post of Archdeacon of Lübben, Saxony, where he spent the last seven years of his life. They were difficult years. Before he even left Berlin, three of his five children died in infancy, with one more following a little later. Weighed down by anxiety, sorrow, and the burden of caring for the ill, Gerhardt’s wife Anna Maria died shortly after, leaving him with a six-year-old son.
Through it all, he found comfort in Christ, and conveyed that comfort to others in song "under circumstances which," in the words of one of his contemporaries, "would have made most men cry rather than sing."
He died on May 27, 1676, leaving behind 123 hymns – not a large number, according to the standards of his day. His last words were a couple of lines from one of his hymns, Warum sollt ich mich denn grämen (Translated as, “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?”) – a hymn that speaks about the inability of death to deprive us of Christ and all He has earned for His children.
A Latin inscription under a life-sized painting of him (commissioned by his congregation) reads, “A theologian sifted in Satan’s sieve” – a fit description of a man who, having been sifted through life’s trials, enriched the world with the comfort he had himself received from God.
Some of Gerhardt’s hymns were translated into English first by John Wesley (1703-1796) and largely by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), who also devoted a chapter to him in her book on German hymnwriters. “His hymns seem to be the spontaneous outpouring of a heart that overflows with love, trust, and praise,” she said.
Much of the depths of Gerhardt’s songs stemmed from the fact that he remained faithful to the true message of the gospel, as expressed in orthodox Reformation doctrines and ecclesiology. “His tenderness and fervor never degenerate into the sentimentality and petty conceits which were already becoming fashionable in his days,” Winkworth wrote.
Bonhoeffer was only one of the many Christians who have drawn comfort from Gerhardt’s hymns. Another hymn that caused Bonhoeffer much reflection was Fröhlich soll mein Herze springen (translated as “All My Heart This Night Rejoiceth”), especially the lines Gerhardt places in the infant Christ’s mouth: “Let go, dear brothers, of what ails you. Everything you lack, I will restore.”
And this was Gerhardt’s confidence through life. He suffered many losses, but knew that Christ will one day restore everything in a perfect way, unstained by sin and eased from any fear.
Dearest Lord, thee will I cherish.
Though my breath fail in death,
yet I shall not perish,
but with thee abide forever
there on high, in that joy
which can vanish never.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8), Fortress Press, 2010, p. 247
 Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany, MacMillian & Co., 1869, p. 208
 Ibid., p. 209
 A literal translation.