By Neil Earle
To a certain extent Germany and music are inseparable.
Apart from the famous three “B’s” (Bach, Beethoven and Brahms) there is a splendid cast of supporting characters – from Wagner’s haunting “Ride of the Valkyries” to Richard Strauss’ spine-tingling opening to “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”
What is often overlooked today in the home of the Reformation is the splendid contribution German church musicians have made to the national collection.
Everyone’s heard of Martin Luther’s “Ein Feste Burg” which breathes the spirited defiance of the Protestant Reformation. But not far behind this and even more versatile for use in many forms of worship is a hymn penned by a German pastor during the horrific Thirty Years War. This song too has travelled around the world and found adherents across all denominations.
The song of course is “Nun danket alle Gott” and eager North Americans have embraced it as their own every Thanksgiving, not aware of the truly remarkable story behind it. This article tries to sketch that background.
Just before the Thirty Years War, which devastated the center of Europe from 1618-1648, a young disciple of Martin Luther was assigned the Lutheran pastorate of Eilenburg, a walled city presently some 27 km driving distance from Leipzig. This was the very heart of Luther country for although the great Reformer died in 1546, his town of Wittenberg is about 95 km north of Leipzig. Meanwhile, just to the south is Chemnitz, bearing the same name as Luther’s successor 72 km south. The famous university city of Halle is just to the northwest.
The scene was thus well laid for one of the most challenging pastoral ministries on record. In the midst of the horrors, mass executions and starvations of the Thirty Years War young Martin Rinckart found himself the only priest-pastor left in the city. Both Protestant and Catholic-sponsored armies tore through Germany from 1618-1648 – six of them altogether, coming from such diverse areas as Bohemia, France, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Spain.
Though it can be argued both ways as to whether the war was triggered by Catholic attempts to throttle the Reformation or from covetous Protestant princes, once war was joined the carnage was tremendous. Some say Germany suffered more in proportion during the Thirty Years than she did after World War Two (1939-1945). Historians Will and Ariel Durant in their Story of Civilization, mention that population in Germany and Austria fell from 21,000,000 to 13, 500,000 (The Age of Reason Begins, page 567). Writers Renard and Weulersee claim that one might travel sixty miles without seeing a village or house. Of 1717 houses standing in nineteen Thuringian villages in 1618 only 627 remained in 1649.
Both sides inflicted barely believable atrocities on each other. Both sides hired cruel mercenaries so mercy was in short supply. In Magdeburg 20,000 out 36,000 were massacred. The religious issues soon faded to the background as armies resorted to almost unrestrained rape, massacre and torture.
Pastor Martin Rinckart soon found himself dealing with starvation as refugees poured into Eilenburg. Then came the plague. Some 6000 may have died in Eilenburg and he found himself doing 40-50 funerals a day. His own wife died. The story goes that one day in 1633 Rinckart came home for a meager meal with his children and composed a special grace. It opened like this:
Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
In whom His earth rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms
Has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.
On the surface it still seems utterly remarkable that Rinckart could write that prayer considering all that was going on around him. Most amazing! How could he – how could anyone – muster up the faith to declare praise to God at such a time, with his family barely having enough to eat. Ah, faith! That’s the key word.
Faith isn’t what many people think it is today – virtually believing in something that may or may not be true. The Bible describes true faith as a supernatural gift from God once a person has surrendered their will and allegiance to Him (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is a charism of the Holy Spirit, a word we recognize in the word “charismatic” or “charisma.” Rinckart undoubtedly had placed his trust in the one true God even before those tragic years. As a Christian pastor, he well knew that his Savior, Jesus Christ, had promised that this gift of faith would always be with him. In John 4:14 Jesus said, “those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Jesus also said: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture ahs said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” John 7:38-39).
Rinckart knew that the Holy Spirit, given to Christians after sincere repentance and belief, is the very power that made the universe. That power, being personal, can take up residence inside Christians (Ephesians 3:20; John 14:23). Such a living hope made it possible for Pastor Rinckart and his tiny flock to endure.
Martin Luther, of course, had been the apostle of faith and Rinckart knew Luther’s writings well. As a young man he had written a play about his spiritual hero. Rinckart would need all of Master Martin’s lessons in faith. In the 1630s a foreign army appeared outside the city gates to besiege Eilenburg for the second time. The general demanded a 50,000 thaler ransom or the city would be put to the sword – not a vain threat in those days. Pastor Rinckart, the story goes, led some of his best followers to parley with the besieging army.
The general flatly refused to lower the terms.
According to Brian Wren’s website “Praying twice”, Rinckart then and there urged his people to pray. “Come, my children, we can find no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” The small flock fell on their knees and prayed fervently. They then sang one of the most popular hymns of that era, “When in the hour of utmost need.”
The opposing general was impressed. He reduced the demand and the city was spared. One can imagine Rinckart returning home feeling that the second verse of his song of praise now sounded more meaningful than ever:
“O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills,
In this world and the next.”
Note the words “blessed peace,” and the grace to “keep” Christians spiritually secure. “Perplexed?” The Bible says Christians are often perplexed about the strange twists and turns of this life. Perplexed, wrote the great Bible writer Paul, but not in despair (2 Corinthians 4:8). Rinckart’s faith – or as he would say, Christ’s faith inside him – stretched through all the terrible setbacks of this life and reached out in vision to the world beyond. What a wonderful guide was faith through the cares and snares of this life. After a life of prayer and devotion and study and good works in Christ’s service, Rinckart possessed both fruits of the Spirit in abundance.
The inspiring last verse of Rinckart’s song of prayer shows how it is possible to worship God with our minds as well as our hearts. This is not often stressed today. The last stanza is relentlessly orthodox in its theology as it brings the Christian teaching of the Trinity into the picture:
“All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son and him who reigns
With them in highest heaven;
The One eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.”
God is one and yet in some mysterious way God is three – how strange to human conceptions of logic! But a God we can explain and control is no god at all. Martin Luther, Rinckart’s mentor, knew this. He used to refer to Deus Absconditus, the God who is so great that he is always beyond us, his ways often inscrutable, his greatness without measure (Isaiah 40:12-31). Yet Rinckart knew what all dedicated Christians know, that God is accessible and can be appealed to in faith and wants to instill that saving faith inside us through His Holy Spirit. As Rinckart’s life’s experiences showed – this kind of faith is practical and workable and brings healing in its wings.
A few years after Rinckart’s death, the chief musician at the University of Berlin, Johnan Cruger (1598-1662), set Rinckart’s stirring words to music. The great composers Bach and Mendelssohn later took a hand at rearranging separate variations. Apparently Frederick the Great’s troops broke out spontaneously singing Nun danket after their surprising victory at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757. Even the mortally wounded joined in. It was sung at the opening of the magnificent Cologne Cathedral in 1884. In the 1850s an American scholar named Catherine Winkworth translated it into English and it became a chief Thanksgiving hymn sung in almost all the churches of the New World.
Rinckart’s message thus lives on today every place his words are sung. How about you? Has the message of Nun danket reached you? What is Rinckart’s message for today? One American pastor has said of Nun danket that “no matter what the external conditions, contracting the disease of hardness of heart is not inevitable.” No matter what our outward circumstances or how far away we feel from God or if we have never prayed to him before, there are always two things we can pray. Those are the words “Thank you.” Even in direst difficulties we can always begin a prayer to God by offering him thanks for what is still going right in our lives.
John L. Hoh, Jr. wrote: “It is the will of God that we give thanks. If we were not thankful we would go insane with the perplexities and irregularities of life’s experiences. If there was ever a time when we needed to be thankful it is in the hour of crisis; because if we are not thankful, we will be overwhelmed by despair.”
Wise words. Words and thoughts triggered by a hymn almost 400 years old and yet as fresh and meaningful as if it were written for us today – which it was!
With reporting by Inge Reger at Weidhaus. Neil Earle, a pastor-journalist based in Los Angeles, teaches an online Church History class at gcs.ambassador.edu.