Paul Gerhardt, 1607-1676

Notes from "Popular Hymns and Their Writers" by Norman Mable:

This famous hymnist has been called the Wesley of the Fatherland; not for the number of hymns that he wrote but for their quality. Of Gerhardt's one hundred and twenty-three hymns, all show the mark of real genius, and nearly forty are still in common use. A celebrated preacher, Paulus Gerhardt was born in 1607 and lived through the Thirty Years War. His was mostly a sad life and he did not obtain a settled position until about 44 years of age, when he became minister of the country parish of Mittenwalde, near Berlin. Six years later, he was called to St. Nicholas Church in the capital, and remained there for nine happy years, enjoying universal love and esteem. Attempts had been made to unite the Lutheran and Reformed churches, and in 1664 an edict was issued by the Grand Elector of Brandenburg, virtually prohibiting mutual insults or offensive language between the churches. A strict Lutheran, Gerhardt refused to abide by this ruling, and in consequence was removed from his church in 1666. Driven from home, he and his broken-hearted wife with their children, for two years became wandering exiles.

One evening when staying at a wayside inn, Gerhardt went out, and under the starry sky pondered deeply over his misfortunes. Full of faith and hope, he put his thoughts into poetry and so was born the hymn we know as "Commit thou all thy griefs". Hurrying back to the inn, he quickly wrote out the verses and at their evening devotions, read them to the family. Buoyed up and cheered by the inspiring poem, they retired to rest. But scarcely had they done so, than a thunderous knocking at the door roused them all. It was a mounted messenger from Duke Christian of Meresberg riding post haste to deliver a sealed packet to Mr. Gerhardt. It was an invitation from the Duke who offered him "Church, people, home and livelihood, and liberty to preach the Gospel as his heart may prompt him". The church was at Lubben in the Spreewald, where Gerhardt became archdeacon, and ministered until his death in 1676...

Many have experienced comfort and encouragement from "Commit thou all thy griefs", and there is told in connection with the hymn what may only be a legend, nevertheless a beautiful one. In a village near Warsaw there lived a pious German peasant named Dobyr. Without remedy, he had fallen into arrears of rent, and his landlord threatened to evict him. Three times he appealed for a respite, but in vain. It was a winter's evening and the next day his family were to be turned out into the snow. Dobyr kneeled down in their midst. After prayer they sang "Commit thou all thy griefs and ways into His hands". As they came to the last verse of part 1, "when Thou wouldest all our needs supply Who, who shall stay Thy hand?" there was a knock at the window close by where he knelt and opening it, Dobyr was met by a raven, one which his father had tamed and set at liberty. In his bill was a ring set with precious stones. This ring Dobyr took to his minister, who said at once that it belonged to the king Stanilaus, to whom he returned it and related his story. The king sent for Dobyr and besides rewarding him on the spot, built for him next year a new home and stocked his cattle stalls from the royal estates. Over the house door, on an iron tablet, there is carved a raven with a ring in its beak, and underneath this address to Divine Providence:

"Thou everywhere hast sway,
And all things serve Thy might,
Thy every act pure blessing is
Thy path unsullied light."

Gerhardt's hymns in Spiritual Song are:

55 Through waves, through clouds and storms (translated by John Wesley)

119 O Head once full of bruises (based on Bernard of Clairvaux)

166 Lord, Thou hast drawn us after Thee (translated by John Wesley)

274 O Lord, Thy rich, Thy boundless love (translated by John Wesley)

397 We go to meet the Saviour

474 Our God is our salvation

As Gerhardt lived in tempestuous times and experienced many hardships because of his loyalty to his beliefs, it is not surprising that his hymns contain so much evidence of his living trust in God. No. 55 is a hymn that expresses deep feeling and trust towards God in the midst of trying circumstances.

Hymns by Paul Gerhardt