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Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)

and the Poetry of Piety

George M. Ella | Added: Aug 30, 2008 | Category: Biography


Commemorating a faithful hymn writer

Nowadays, it appears that our congregations seldom sing hymns depicting the sacrificial sufferings of Christ on the cross. When biographer Hugh I’Anson Fausset read William Cowper’s triumphant atonement hymn ‘There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins’, he reacted in disgust, calling the language ‘crude salvationism’, ‘barbarous’ and ‘hysterical’. This is perhaps why most of Paul Gerhardt’s 150 hymns, often sung by our fathers in the faith, are now almost unknown to the Christian youth of today. So, too, Gerhardt combined his teaching of Christ’s shed blood with hymns of solemn warning to unrepentant sinners and backsliding saints. Again, hardly themes for modern wishy-washy evangelism where Christ is presented as ‘Everybody’s Saviour’ whom we must love out of  a sense of duty.  Though there is a place and time for singing ‘Jesus loves me this I know/ For the Bible tells me so’, the didactic and exegetic element in such ‘happy hymns’ is often unclear and they are seldom inspiring poetry. Paul Gerhardt’s ‘O Sacred Head! now wounded’ in its English renderings by Alexander and Baker has a clear, resurrection message that meets every demand of sound theology and beautiful poetic expression. So, too, if hymnologic happiness is our aim, we can do worse than sing ‘Give to the winds thy fears’; ‘All this night my soul rejoices’; ‘Since Jesus is my Friend’; ‘Sweetest joy the soul can know’ and ‘Jesus thy boundless love to me’ which are joyful hymns of the choicest order.

This year (2007) is the four-hundredth anniversary of Gerhardt’s birth and churches all over the world are holding services in his remembrance and organising exhibitions showing the international impact of his hymns. In Germany, Gerhardt’s home country, there have been a number of television broadcasts, church conferences and exhibitions commemorating not only his theological outreach and his comfort to those who suffered during the Thirty-Years War but also the part his works played in the evangelical revivals of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and his continuing importance to the Church.

Paul Gerhardt’s early years

Paul Gerhardt was born on 12 March, 1607 in Gräfenhainichen, not far from Luther’s Wittenberg in Saxony. Little has been found out about his life until recently as much of his prose writing and personal letters disappeared in the turbulent times of the Thirty-Years War during which Gerhardt served as a minister of the gospel. More evidence from this period is being produced by modern detective-like research. We now know that Gerhardt’s father was Christian Gerhardt, a farmer and tavern owner who became Lord Mayor and Chairman of the Jury in Gräfenhainichen. He was married to the Lutheran Superintendent’s daughter, Dorothea Starken, Paul’s mother, on 12 May, 1605. Paul was named after his maternal great grandfather who had also been Superintendent before Dorothea’s father.

Paul Gerhardt’s earliest years were disturbed by religious controversies owing to the dukes of Saxony and Saxon Anhalt changing their religious sympathies and dragging their subjects with them as their whims changed. But worse was to come. By the time Gerhardt was eleven years of age, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike were lining up for quite senseless battles which were to last an average life-time. It was in these decades of destruction and devastation that Gerhardt began to write Christian verse.

Gerhardt’s mother died when he was fourteen years of age, after which, following his older brother, Christian, he attended the Ducal Grammar School at Grimma where he spent the next six years as a boarder. The school had been an Augustinian Cloister where Melanchthon’s theology and educational reforms were now highly treasured. Though the school was now Lutheran, the pupils still had to wear Augustinian monks’ cassocks. The discipline and high standards at Grimma were so severe that Christian Gerhardt fled the school never to return. Paul found his new home congenial to his tastes and even when the plague struck the school and most pupils and staff fled, young Paul remained there with a handful of boys who then enjoyed the privilege of one-to-one tuition. In spite of this, Paul never shone as a pupil and when he matriculated his tutors merely claimed that his prose style was ‘to a large extent tolerable and so was his verse’.

Paul returned to Gräfenhainichen in December of 1627 where he lived for a few weeks with his father and younger sister before matriculating in Theology at Wittenberg in January, 1628. Though the university was going through a period of nigh anarchy in the war years, it still stuck to the rule that ‘foreign poisons,’ i.e. Roman Catholicism and the Reformed Faith, would not be tolerated and all the students must subscribe to the Augsburg Confession and the Book of Concord. It was throughout the next fourteen years of intense Bible study at Wittenberg that Paul Gerhardt began to confess his faith in Christ but it was obvious that he saw the Lutheran formulas as being thoroughly Biblical in all respects. During my own studies in Lutheran countries, when asked to testify to a belief in the Bible and the Book of Concord, I always refused with the argument that God’s Word must suffice. If the authorities meant that that Book of Concord was in concord with the Bible, then it sufficed for me to sign that I believed the Bible. If they meant that the Concord taught other than the Bible, then I wished to have nothing to do with it. This meant that I could not join the university Christian Unions and other church organisations.

Whilst a student, Gerhardt developed a love for sacred music and organised a private choir in the university, the students meeting in his digs mornings and evenings to sing chorales and anthems. Now Gerhardt began to write his own hymns and even edit and publish his tutor’s verse. However, outside of the university Gustav Adolf’s Generals, after the Swedish king’s death, turned Saxony into a desert and Gerhardt started to visit and educate the poor and do his best to help the suffering population. This helped him greatly to translate his technical, theological knowledge into the language of Everyman. Then the plague struck again and thousands stormed the university for help and refuge. Again Gerhardt stayed to care for them though his colleagues either fled or died, struck by the plague themselves. At Easter, 1637, Gräfenhainichen was burnt to the ground by the Swedes. All the main buildings were destroyed including the Gerhardts’ farm buildings and tenants’ homes. Gerhardt’s father was spared for a few months but died in November from his sufferings. Hunger and the plague took toll of most of the survivors in the area.

The beginning of his ministry

In 1643, Andreas Berthold, a leading lawyer, was called to Berlin and asked Gerhardt to go with him as a companion and teacher of his children. In those days, Berlin was a relatively small town of 6,000 inhabitants, dwarfed by Cölln on the other Spree side where the local Duke lived. Grand Duke, Friedrich Wilhelm was, however, staffing the city, brought to its knees by the war, with administrators and civil servants so that the small town rapidly grew in importance. Gerhardt became so well-known and respected in Berlin that more important cities invited him to take over their churches. Our subject accepted a call to Mittenwalde as Provost and Inspector of the country clergy, though he was still not ordained and only a very meagre salary could be paid. At his ordination, although it was not necessary, Gerhardt delivered a statement of faith and professed his agreement with the Lutheran Articles. In 1648, Gerhardt was asked to compose a national hymn on the occasion of signing the Peace of Westphalia which put an end to the Thirty Years War. By that time, the official hymnbook of the Berlin churches, Praxis pietatis melica, contained eighteen of his own hymns besides those of Martin Luther which were put to music by the famous composer and church organist, Johann Crüger. By the time the fifth edition was published in 1653, no less than 81 of Gerhardt’s hymns were contained in it, and Gerhardt was now acknowledged as the most respected Lutheran hymn writer since Luther’s Reformation.

It was not until he was 48 years of age that Gerhardt felt he could support a wife and family and he then proposed to thirty-two year old Anna Maria Berthold and was married by Provost Vehr in Berthold’s Berlin house in 1655. In the spring of 1657, Gerhardt was called unanimously to pastor the newly built Nicolai Church in Berlin but he delayed his answer for some time, seriously believing that he was not competent enough to take on the post. After much prayer and consideration he finally consented and took up his new task on 22 July of the same year. Berlin was rapidly becoming one of the most important cities in eastern Germany and rebuilding was going on at a steady and imposing pace. Though Gerhardt now received a salary that met all his family’s needs, his workload rose considerably as he daily spoke or taught at the church and pastored a growing congregation. ‘Paulo’ as he was lovingly called, was now well known for his evangelical faith and writings all over Germany and at least 88 of his hymns were translated into other languages, including Tamil.

The dangers of denominational warfare

Gerhardt was not to enjoy the bliss of his new situation long as four of the Gerhardt’s five children did not survive their first few months of life. So, too, although Gerhardt lived harmoniously with a people who loved and cherished him, the risks associated with a state church system soon made themselves apparent. Grand Duke Friedrich Wilhelm went over to the Reformed faith and sought to implement the Peace of Augsburg, following Emperor Charles V’s decree that a state must take on the religion of its highest nobility.

Actually, Friedrich Wilhelm was for a compromise congenial to Gerhardt’s own desire but Gerhardt believed that the state should not dictate to the churches what they should do, so he preached and wrote against the rule of the Grand Duke over the Church. The Grand Duke told Gerhardt that if he would not agree to his duke’s  ‘well-meant Christian order’, he was free to leave the Dukedom. Then, in order to stop the spread of Lutheranism, which, he argued, was not a Reformed Church, Friedrich Wilhelm forbade the university of Wittenberg to teach theology and philosophy. This stung Gerhardt who considered himself fully Reformed and his voice was raised in protest.  In all fairness to the Grand Duke, it must be said that whereas Luther had moved the Lutheran nobility to outlaw all Reformed teaching, Friedrich Wilhelm had expected the two churches to live in peace and he only became stubbornly one-sided after confronting Lutheran stubbornness. Thus Gerhardt was deprived of his office, robbed of his citizenship and outlawed. Anna Gerhardt wrote in her Bible:

My dear husband has been relieved of his duties today. Yet another time of testing! My strength is weak but the Lord knows how much I am able to bear. Remain steadfast my Gerhardt. Do not be ashamed of the gospel of Christ and give a good testimony to many witnesses. I will follow you into destitution, into the wilderness, into affliction and death. Do not fear those who can kill your body but cannot touch your soul. Gerhardt, I know you never praise yourself because you are meek and humble in your heart, but now praise loudly and faithfully. Praise the Lord Jesus Christ. Do not look to me and our child. Without the will of God, no sparrow falls from the roof. We shall not die of hunger. Be steadfast my Gerhardt ... God bless thee my Gerhardt. Now I realise how great you are and how inferior I am. Your poor handmaid.

Gerhardt refuses to compromise

However, so great was his popularity that a massive protest came from the citizens, guilds and city council, begging the Grand Duke to allow Gerhardt to keep his position. The wily petitioners reminded the Grand Duke that he himself had placed Gerhardt’s hymns in his ‘Reformed’ Hymn Book. The Grand Duke remained stubborn but the lesser nobility warned him of public uproar should he not leave Gerhardt and his church in peace. The grand nobility of other states such as Lippe told Friedrich Wilhelm that a man with the talents of Gerhardt would be very welcome in their territories. At this, the Grand Duke relented and Gerhardt remained another two years in Berlin. The ordeal had been too much for Anna, however, and she became seriously ill.

The Grand Duke had only relented publicly to save face. Privately, he told Gerhardt that he had merely given him time to think things over and he had to sign or receive dire consequences. On March 5, 1668, Anna passed away. Her last words were that she had no fears but longed to be with the Lord. As soon as she was dead, Gerhardt told Friedrich Wilhelm that he would never gain his signature and that the Grand Duke should allow the church to find a new minister. In August, 1668, a new pastor was found and Gerhard formally relinquished his office. He was sixty-one years of age, without a salary and had a six-year-old son to look after besides the family of Anna’s penniless widowed sister whom he and his wife had cared for during all their own troubles.

Notwithstanding the wrath of the Grand Duke, the church of Lübben in Spreewald, in the neighbouring dukedom, called Gerhardt to be their pastor. The area had not recovered from devastation and the people were on the verge of starvation. Famous as Gerhardt now was, he accepted the humble post but found much opposition because of his witness and a manse which was a roofless ruin. His ordination was postponed for a year. Gerhardt’s only remaining child and his wife’s sister, now his housekeeper, became seriously ill. After a year of intense suffering and his son’s recovery, Gerhard found that he had won the hearts of his people and he entered his ministry in May, 1669. He was to keep his post for the next seven years, living, as he said, in the happy prospect of being taken by the Lord to a world where all suffering will cease and every tear wiped away. We know very little about this period save for the fact that in his will, Gerhardt declared that he had nothing to leave his son but a good name and good advice, after which he wrote out five rules for right living, closing with the words:

Pray without ceasing; study only that which is honest; live peacefully; serve others uprightly and be steadfast in your faith and confession. After such a life you also will die and depart from this world, willingly, gladly and blest.


Paul Gerhardt died totally forgotten by the world. Not a word reached the press concerning his home call. However his strong faith and testimony remain in his hymns. They have a message of solace which only a man of suffering, comforted deeply by Christ, could write with such absolute conviction.