Thursday, November 20, 2014

Now Thank We All Our God

The Angelus, by Jean Francois Millet (1859)

One of the great miracles of sincere faith in God is that thanks may be given to Him even amidst the deepest suffering. The Bible tells us that we should "[i]n every thing give thanks" (1 Thess. 5:18), and "[give] thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Eph. 5:20). Indeed, we should "[c]ount it all joy" when we encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of our faith produces endurance (James 1:2-3). Even Job, the archetype of sufferers, could humbly declare: "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21)

Some of Christendom's most moving hymns of thanksgiving have been born of personal tragedy, prominent among them Horatio Spafford's It is Well WIth My Soul.  Communal suffering, arising from such calamities as war and pestilence, has likewise and improbably inspired great treasures of choral thanksgiving. One of the foremost is the beloved German hymn "Nun danket alle Gott", known in English as Now Thank We All Our God

The text was written by Lutheran minister Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) in or about 1636, in Eilenburg, Saxony (a province of Germany). At that time and place was raging the Thirty Years' War, among the bloodiest and most destructive conflicts in European history--and one of the longest, dragging on from 1618 to 1648. Initially a war between Protestant and Catholic states in the fragmenting Holy Roman Empire, it gradually developed into a more general conflict involving most of the great powers of Europe. This war devastated and depopulated whole regions of the German and Italian states, the Kingdom of Bohemia, and the Low Countries. The war also bankrupted most of the combatant powers. Hordes of mercenary troops looted property, extorted tribute, and murdered common people by the thousands. The displacement of civilian populations and the overcrowding of refugees into cities led to famine and the spread of dread diseases such as typhusdysentery, and bubonic plague.

Caught in this maelstrom was Eilenburg, where Martin Rinkart was born into a poor coppersmith's family on April 23, 1586. Despite his humble origins he became a boy chorister in the famous Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) of Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach was later musical director and is buried. Rinkart studied at the University of Leipzig and was ordained to the Lutheran Church ministry. At the age of 31, he became a pastor in his native town.

Eilenburg, Germany today
Rinkart arrived there just as the chaos of the Thirty Years' War was starting. The steady stream of refugees pouring through the gates of this walled city brought famine and disease in its wake. The Rinkart home served as a refuge for the afflicted victims, even though Martin often had trouble providing food and clothing for his own family. Eilenberg was also overrun by invading armies, once by the Austrian army and twice by the Swedish army. As the latter surrounded the city, nearly a thousand homes were destroyed, and the death toll soared. The handful of pastors remaining in the town had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors also succumbed, and Martin Rinkart was the only one left. At the height of the great plague in 1637, he conducted as many as 50 funerals in a day, and more than 4000 funerals in that year, including his wife's. By the end of the year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services.

Soldiers Plundering a Farm During the Thirty Years' War, by Sebastian Vrancx (1620)

The story is told that when the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of Eilenburg's walls to plead for mercy. At first the the Swedish commander refused, so the pastor turned to his humble flock and said, "Come, my children, we can find no mercy with man; let us take refuge with God."  Rinkart knelt and led his parishioners in prayer, and in the singing of a familiar hymn. The Swedish commander was so impressed by his faith and courage that he lowered the ransom demand. (Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 174).


Despite all the horrors he had witnessed, and all he had lost among family and friends, Martin Rinkart was still able to declare joyfully, "Nun danket alle Gott."  This text is said to have been inspired by a passage in the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 50:22-24 ("And now bless the God of all, who in every way does great things; who exalts our days from birth, and deals with us according to his mercy. May he give us gladness of heart, and grant that peace may be in our days in Israel, as in the days of old. May he entrust to us his mercy! And let him deliver us in our days!"). The verses are few and simple, but bursting with thanksgiving and praise to our loving Heavenly Father and His Son, our Savior:
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd 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!
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.
Catherine Winkworth
This text is thought to have first appeared in Rinkart's 1636 hymn collection Jesu Hertz-Buchlein, but no copy of that publication is now known. The text also appears in the second (1663) edition of Jesu Hertz-Büchlein, where the wording slightly varies, and the piece is entitled "Grace" ("Tisch-Gebetlein," that is, a short prayer at table). But its real fame derives from its 1647 appearance in Praxis Pietatis Melica, a hymn collection edited by renowned German composer Johann Crüger (1598-1662), and regarded as the outstanding German hymnal of the 17th century.

The text was translated from German to English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), in 1856. This was not its first translation into English, but is generally regarded as the best.  According to The Harvard University Hymn Book, Ms. Winkworth "did more than any other single individual to make the rich heritage of German hymnody available to the English-speaking world."


Johann Crüger
 Felix Mendelssohn
The tune to which Rinkart's text has been sung, ever since they appeared together in the 1647 Praxis Pietatis Melica, is NUN DANKET, also known as the Leuthen Chorale. The melody is generally attributed to Johann Crüger, although Catherine Winkworth believed that Martin Rinkart wrote the tune in 1644. The now-standard harmonization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840 when he adopted the hymn, sung in the key of F major and with its original German lyrics, as the chorale to his Second Symphony, known as the Lobgesang or Hymn of Praise.

After the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, during another conflict between European powers known as the Seven Years' War, an unknown Prussian soldier standing near Frederick the Great is said to have begun singing the Leuthen Chorale spontaneously, upon which the hymn was taken up by the entire assembled Prussian army, about 25.000 men.



Now Thank We All Our God is often used in Christian weddings and other joyous religious ceremonies. It has been called the national "Te Deum" of  Germany because it has been sung on so many occasions of national rejoicing. (Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 173).


In the beautiful video below, Now Thank We All Our God is performed by a magnificent, but unidentified, solo tenor backed by a choir.

The traditional choral rendition in the video below is by the Chamber Choir of Lincoln Minster School in Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England.

In this video, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra perform Now Thank We All Our God, in an arrangement by British composer and conductor John Rutter that emphasizes the hymn's exultant, celebratory character:

The lovely video below features the Chorale from Felix Mendelssohn's Second Symphony (Lobgesang), which is based on Johann Crüger's tune NUN DANKET (the Chorale ends at 4:22 of the video):

* * * * * 
Calamity and suffering are always occasions to pray, typically for mercy and relief. But they can also be occasions to thank God for all He has done for us and all we are confident He will yet do. Did He not give us life?  Did not Jesus suffer more than we can comprehend, to purchase for us redemption and eternal life? We will always be vexed less than many others, and always infinitely blessed through Christ's loving atonement. This is more than enough reason, despite our earthly trials, to sing with the Psalmist: "O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever." (Psalm 106:1)


The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe (1914)

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful hymn--it's perfect for the Thanksgiving season. I sang this (with a few word changes) with an RC church choir for years. The backstory is amazing: giving thanks and praise to God, even in the very worst of circumstances; something I need to be reminded of, even now.