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Now Thank We All Our God
The year is 1639, and a long and weary war has come once again to the town gates. It’s not the enemy, either, but your angry and disgruntled allies from across the sea. They are Swedes. Their beloved king, Gustavus Adolphus, died not far away seven years before, at the Battle of Luetzen. Gustavus Adolphus, called “the Father of Modern Warfare,” made Sweden into a great power, and his army actually defeated the army of Count Wallenstein in that battle — a narrow victory achieved at too great a cost. For the Protestant armies never recovered from the loss of their brave and brilliant leader. And now, nearing the end of the Thirty Years’ War— the bloodiest and most destructive war in human history until the twentieth century took all the old records and blasted them as high as the moon or as deep as the bottom of the sea— it’s those same Swedes nearby, hungry, disillusioned, and ready for plunder. They have given your town officials an ultimatum. Pay our protection price, or we will sack the city, taking what we please, and putting everything else to the torch. This too, after years of pestilence and plague and famine, which in those days always followed in the wake of war.
And that was when the author of our Hymn of the Week, the pastor, poet, church historian, and theologian Martin Rinkart, left the city gates all by himself to approach the Swedes and plead with them. I don’t have a transcript of what he said. He wasn’t a young man, and he too was acquainted with suffering, having lost his beloved wife two years before. Whatever this brave man of God said to those Swedes, it worked. They refrained from destruction, accepting what the people of the town could pay them. That town, by the way, is Eilenburg, in the eastern quarter of Germany, and most of whatever Pastor Rinkart saved in 1638 was reduced to rubble by the bombs of World War II. But Rinkart’s church, St. Nicholas, did survive, not without damage, and that is where the good pastor is buried. There’s a nice bronze marker on one of the outer walls of the church, with a relief sculpture of Rinkart on top, and words of memorial, which I’ll translate:
The Poet of the Song
"Now Thank We All Our God”
April 24, 1586 — Eilenburg — December 8, 1649
Worked at this church as Pastor
1617 — 1649
The poem was set to music by the great Johann Crueger in 1647, shortly before Rinkart’s death, and it has been beloved in German lands ever since. In 1858, Catherine Winkworth, brilliant translator of German hymns, rendered it into the mighty English stanzas we are familiar with.
Gratitude, I have often said, is the beautiful virtue whereby the inferior shares in the gracious gifts of the superior, and the old masters knew too that there was a grace in receiving a gift as well as in giving, and that’s why they always painted the three graces dancing in a ring, two of them facing one way, and the third facing the other. When it comes to man and God, we owe Him not only all that we have, but the very fact that we exist at all. Without His creative power, working now, at every instant of our lives, we would fall into nothingness, as a thought forgotten forever. But though we may forget God sometimes, He does not forget us. Then let us sing this old song with all the greater fervor.
Now thank we all our God, With heart and hands and voices, Who wondrous things hath done, In whom his world rejoices; Who from our mother's arms Hath 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 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. All praise and thanks to God The Father now be given, The Son, and Him who reigns With them in highest heaven, Eternal, Triune God, Whom earth and heavens adore, For thus it was, is now, And shall be evermore!
This hymn should be sung brightly, not like a dirge. Listen as the King’s College Choir sings “Now Thank We All Our God,” with vigor and with joy.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.