This hymn is a favorite of my family and this beloved German hymn was born of conflict and suffering.
It was penned by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a Lutheran pastor in the little village of Eilenberg, Saxony in Germany. He grew up as the son of a poor coppersmith who felt called to the ministry. After his seminary training, he started his pastoral career just as the Thirty Years’ War was raging throughout his native Germany.
It was an awful conflict that pitted Catholics against Protestants. Floods of refugees streamed into the walled city of Eilenberg. These were times that tried men’s souls and this small town became a refuge for political and military refugees and the result was overcrowding, deadly pestilence and famine. Armies overran it three times. The Swedish army surrounded the city gates. Inside the gates, there was nothing but plague, famine, and fear. Eight hundred homes were destroyed. The Rinkart home became a refuge for victims, even though he was hard-pressed to provide for his own family.
In 1637, there was a severe plague. People started to die in increasing numbers. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors, who spent all their strength on preaching the gospel, caring for the sick, and burying the dead. One after another, the pastors themselves fell ill and died until at last only Martin Rinkart was left. He performed up to fifty funerals a day and 4000 funerals that year including that of his own wife.
Finally the Swedes demanded a huge ransom. It was Rinkart who left the safety of the city walls to negotiate with the enemy and he did it with such courage and faith that there was soon an end to hostilities and the suffering had ended.
Pastor Rinkart knew there was no healing without thanksgiving and he composed this hymn for the survivors of Eilenberg. The hymn tune was composed by Johann Cruger, who was director of music at St. Nicholas’ Church in Berlin, who published it in 1647. It was sung at the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, the following year. It was translated into English in the nineteenth century by Catherine Winkworth.