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Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, Paul Gerhardt: Hymnwriters

Today, we remember influential hymnwriters Philipp Nicolai, Johann Heermann, and Paul Gerhardt. Our devotional reading about Paul Gerhardt is adapted from Paul Gerhardt as a Hymn Writer and his Influence on English Hymnody by Theodore Brown Hewitt.

Devotional Reading

From the close of the Thirty Years’ War until 1680, there occurred in German hymnody a transition from the churchly and confessional to the pietistic and devotional hymns. It is during this transitional period that the religious song of Germany finds its purest and sweetest expression in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, who is as much the typical poet of the Lutheran, as Herbert is of the English church. In Gerhardt more than in any other author all the requisites for the religious poem are united. He possessed a firm conviction of the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of salvation and also a genuine sentiment for all that is purely human. His deep Christian feeling, together with sterling good sense, and a fresh and healthy appreciation of life in the realm of nature and in the intellectual world are the sources for his splendid work. His hymns are among the noblest contributions to sacred poetry, giving him a place second only to Luther and even surpassing Luther’s work in poetic fertility.

Gerhardt sings his hymns with conviction, embodying in them such phases of feeling as might be experienced by any large body of sincere Christians. In all the religious lyrics, even in the congregational hymns from the middle of the seventeenth century on, we note a more personal and individual tone and with it a tendency to reproduce special forms of Christian experience often of a mystical character. Gerhardt’s whole tone and style of thought belong to the confessional school, but the distinct individuality and expression of personal sentiment which are impressed on his poems already point to the devotional school.

Many of our poet’s hymns show the influence of Opitz’ Trostgedichte in Widerwärtigkeit des Krieges. Critics have gone so far as to say that “without Opitz there would be no Gerhardt.” There can be no doubt but that the smoothness and elegance of form, the complete mastery of technique, and the purity of language are a distinct heritage from him. But without consciously differing from Opitz and his school, Gerhardt has brought into prominence the popular expression of feeling, using the popular form of verse in which there prevails the natural flow of rhythm, so that no striving after correctness of form is evident.

Compared with most authors of his time, Gerhardt wrote but little. His contemporary, Rist (1607–1667), and his successor, Schmolk (1672–1737), composed respectively 659 and 1,188 hymns, while Gerhardt has the modest number of 132 poems in all. Yet a complete hymnal might be compiled from them, so thoroughly do they embrace all religious and domestic experiences. They appeared at intervals from the year 1649 on, 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 chorals.

Of these 132 poems a large proportion have become embodied in church music of Germany and many of them may be counted among the most beautiful in German hymnody. How widely they have been adopted into general use is shown by the fact that in modern hymnals in Germany there appear, either in expanded or cento form, altogether 78 of his hymns, while in the Schaff-Gilman “Library of Religious Poetry,” which may be regarded as a representative collection universal hymnody, the proportion among German hymn writers is as follows:—Luther 10, Goethe 8, Gerhardt 7, Spitta 6, Scheffler 4, Schmolk 4, etc. Pietism and rationalism transferred the center of gravity in hymnody to a different point; that is, it changed the type of hymn or required of it other features, and thus it is that during the eighteenth century, while Gerhardt’s hymns lived on with others, they are rarely accorded a leading place. It was only the reawakening of a life of faith that needed worship and strong evidence of reverence, such as followed the wars of liberation, that brought his hymns into the forefront once more and prompted further publications of them.

Although Gerhardt’s hymns are written in the vernacular of the seventeenth century, at a time when many of the forms characteristic of the writers of the two preceding centuries still survived, nevertheless his hymns are remarkably free from the tendency of this period to use words coined from foreign tongues. He belongs to no poetic school or literary circle of the seventeenth century. He never sought any laurels. He goes on his way writing because his heart is so full, and not from any desire or intention to devote himself to poetry. A fine feeling for rhythm schooled under the principles of Optiz, language taken from the best sacred literature including Luther’s Bible and almost entirely free from foreign words, avoidance of bombast and coarseness of which so many contemporary writers were guilty, richness in figures and analogies, tenderness which on occasion yields to sternness, are all attributes of his writing. 

Devotional reading adapted from Paul Gerhardt as a Hymn Writer and his Influence on English Hymnody, Second Edition, by Theodore Brown Hewitt, pages 13, 14, 16, 17–18. Copyright © 1976 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved. 

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