Elisabeth Cruciger—First Female Lutheran Hymn Writer

Often, as we recall and recount the events of the Reformation, the focus is on the large sociopolitical movements of the time or the vital theological issues at stake. We tend to forget the people involved were no different from you and me. They knew joy and sorrow, sickness and grief, tragedy and triumph, the daily frustrations of balancing work and home, and the stresses of maintaining friendships and relationships with those around them, and yes, they were people who fell in love. One of those persons was Elisabeth Cruciger. Let’s get to know Elisabeth a bit better.

Elisabeth Cruciger's Early Life

As is usually the case, we do not know much about Elisabeth’s early life. We do know she was born into nobility around 1500 and was named Elisabeth von Meseritz. (Whenever a “von” appeared in a German name at that time, it was a mark that the family was from the “knightly” class.) And as was often the case, daughters of nobility were sent away to nunneries. This is precisely what happened to Elisabeth. She “joined” a convent in Treptow in Pomerania, an area along the southern part of the Baltic Sea. We know from historical records that Elisabeth’s convent was known for growing very fine hops and brewing delicious beer.

In the same region, Luther’s Reformation teachings started to spread through the work of John Bugenhagen, who was working at the city school in Treptow. Later, Bugenhagen went to Wittenberg and became the parish pastor of St. Mary, the city church, among his other duties.

We don’t precisely know how, but Elisabeth was so influenced by the refreshing pure Gospel being preached and taught by Bugenhagen that she resolved to escape from her nunnery. Sometime around 1520, Elisabeth fled to Wittenberg and was taken in by the Bugenhagens and became to them as dear as their own daughter.

A few years later, she met and fell in love with a young university student named Caspar Cruciger, who was in Wittenberg studying Hebrew under Philip Melanchthon. Caspar would later go on to be part of the highly influential circle of Luther’s colleagues, and he assisted Luther in completing the translation of the entire Holy Scriptures.

Elisabeth's Marriage to Caspar Cruiciger

The story of Elisabeth and Caspar’s wedding in 1524 is quite touching. We know from historical letters that John Bugenhagen appealed to the prince of the territory, Frederick the Wise, for a special donation of enough venison to provide a great feast for the wedding of Caspar and Elisabeth, writing to the elector’s secretary that they needed ten large tables and plenty of venison to celebrate appropriately, also indicating that he wanted as many friends and supporters as possible to attend the wedding for “my Elisabeth,” as he referred to her. Why? Because her own family would not be attending the wedding. They had disowned Elisabeth as a result of her conversion to the Lutheran Reformation teachings and movement.

While we do not know much more about Elisabeth, we know that she and Caspar had one son and one daughter. The son, also named Caspar, would go on to become embroiled in the controversies that arose after the death of Luther in 1546, controversies finally settled with the Formula of Concord and Book of Concord. Their daughter, also named Elisabeth, would go on eventually to marry John Luther, son of Martin and Katy Luther. We know that the Cruciger and Luther families enjoyed socializing together, and Elisabeth and Katy were close friends.

Tragically, Elisabeth died when she was in her mid-thirties, a heart-breaking event for her husband, Caspar, and all those who loved her dearly as a fine, pious wife, mother, and fellow Christian.

Elisabeth's Hymn: The Only Son from Heaven

Her greatest gift to us all, however, is her hymn “The Only Son from Heaven,” which she wrote at a fairly young age, perhaps being no more than twenty or so, after she had arrived in Wittenberg and was able regularly to hear Martin Luther and other reformers preaching. Indeed, Elisabeth is the first woman poet of the Reformation and has blazed a trail for other Lutheran women hymn writers since.

The original text and all stanzas of her hymn can be found, translated, in Walther’s Hymnal (CPH 2012). Martin Luther was immediately thrilled with her hymn when he first read it and insisted that it be included in one of the very first hymnals of the Lutheran Reformation, the Erfurt Enchiridion of 1524. It was also translated into English in 1535 and included in Coverdale’s Spiritual Psalms.

Note how Elisabeth artfully works the distinction between Law and Gospel into the hymn. I’ve modified the translation slightly in order to  capture even more forcefully the original German, without concern for how well it is able to fit the tune.

1. Lord Christ, the Sole-Begotten
Of the God the Father’s heart,
Eternal without turning
As Scripture says Thou art;
He is the Morning Star of heaven,
Of radiance never riven,
The brightest Star of all.

2. For us a Man was born,
In recent time by Spirit sown,
Of virgin born, not breaking
The chasteness of His throne,
Death for our sake He shattered,
And the gates of heaven opened,
And life to us restored.

3. Lord, let in us increasing
Thy love and knowledge be,
That we, the faith confessing,
In spirit wait on Thee;
That, tasting of Thy favor,
Our hearts may know its savor,
And always thirst for Thee.

4. Thou Maker of each creature
The Father’s Arm and Might,
Who rulest o’er all nature
In Thine own Name and right:
Our hearts to Thee be turning,
Lest by our sinning
We ever stray from Thee.

5. Kill us in Thy kindness,
Sustain us by Thy grace,
Sicken the Old Man,
New life within us place
That here on earth,
Our heart and mind and feeling,
May ever think on Thee.

—E. Creuziger, 1524; tr., M. Carver, but sts. 3, 4a, Mor. H.B., 1754, alt.; alt. Paul T. McCain, 2015.

So remember your dear sister in Christ Elisabeth Cruciger, the love she shared with friends and family in Wittenberg, the love she and Caspar shared, and most important, the love of Christ that animated her soul and filled her heart, a love she was able beautifully to articulate for us in the hymn: “Lord Christ, God’s Only Son.” 

Dive deeper into your favorite hymns and hymn writers with Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns.

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