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Now Thank We All our God: Its Amazing Backdrop

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Now Thank We All our God is a popular Christian hymn that is often sung at weddings and at other times of rejoicing. In Germany, it is sung at times of national thanksgiving. Nun danket alle Gott (its German title) was written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), being inspired by Sirach, chapter 50, verses 22-24, from the praises of Simon the high priest. He was born in Eilenberg, Saxony (Germany), a small town near Leipzig, which during the twentieth century ended behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany for several decades. 

Rinkart studied for the Lutheran ministry and was called to be the pastor of his own hometown of Eilenberg. He arrived there just at the start of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war that would devestate Germany in general and Eilenberg in particular. Being a walled city, it became a place for refugees to flee to and it soon became overcrowded, thus rendering it susceptible to disease. And the result was indeed famine and pestilence. Armies overran it three times. The Rinkart home was a refuge for the victims, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. At the start of 1637, the Year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenberg. But one abandoned his post for healthier regions and could not be persuaded to return. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two ministers. As the only surviving pastor, he performed 40 to 50 funerals per day, some 4,480 in all that year. In May of that same year, his own wife died. By the end of that year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. The plague decimated Eilenberg killing some 8,000 people. 

Yet, amazingly, it is out of such horrific tragedy, that Now Thank We All our God was written around the year 1636. Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer and he did not let the horrors of war, famine and plague deter him from writing praises to our God. Yet the first two stanzas were not written, not as a hymn for public worship, but as table grace for his own family. At the end of the war, Nun danket alle Gott was sung at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the treaty that ended the war. Rinkart would die the following year in 1649 in Eillenberg. 

It was set to music by Johann Cruger (1598-1662) around 1647 (tune: “Leuthen Chorale”), who composed the music for many other hymns including Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended and  Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness. The hymn tune, Leuthen Chorale is also used in Bach’s cantatas, such as BWV 79, 192 and in his BWV 252, 386 and 657. The now-familiar standardization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, when he adopted the hymn, sung in the now-standard key of F Major, with its original German lyrics, as the chorale for his second symphony, known as Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” The Late-Romantic Germanic composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert was one of the more recent composers to use this hymn composing a Marche Triomphale, a famous piece in the classic pipe organ repertoire. After the Battle of Leuthen during the Seven Years War, a soldier of the triumphant Prussian army started to sing it and soon all 25,000 soldiers joined in the hymn. Now that would have been something to hear!

Yet we in the English-speaking world would not have known of this great hymn of the church if it were not for the efforts of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), an English woman who translated many hymns into English during the nineteenth century. Other hymns she translated are Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness and Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates. 

If Martin Rinkart could sing such a great hymn of thanksgiving during a time of unimaginable horror and upheaval, surely we today, who will most likely not see such tragedy like he did, can do the same. So as we in America celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, let us remember the amazing account of the Rev. Martin Rinkart and may we, like him, sing with one voice:

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom the 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, who reigns with them in highest heaven, eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore, for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. Amen.