Some of Gerhardt’s hymns were translated into English first by John Wesley (1703-1796) and largely by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), who also devoted a chapter to him in her book on German hymnwriters. “His hymns seem to be the spontaneous outpouring of a heart that overflows with love, trust, and praise,” she said. Much of the depths of Gerhardt’s songs stemmed from the fact that he remained faithful to the true message of the gospel, as expressed in orthodox Reformation doctrines and ecclesiology.
Paul Gerhardt and His Songs of Confident Hope
In 1943, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his lonely prison cell, “I’ve lately learnt for the first time to appreciate the hymn, ‘Beside thy cradle here I stand.’ Up to now I hadn’t made much of it; I suppose one has to be alone for a long time, and meditate on it, to be able to take it in properly.”
The hymn was just one of the many written by Paul Gerhardt, one of the most influential hymn writers in history. And Bonhoeffer was right. The depth of Gerhardt’s words is often hidden in their apparent simplicity missed by those who read or sing them quickly and let the familiarity of their message get in the way.
Many of Gerhardt’s songs sprung out of painful experiences. Born on March 12, 1607 in Gräfenhaim, near Wittenberg, Germany, he lost both of his parents before he turned 14. In spite of this, he was able to continue his studies, enrolling at the University of Wittenberg with the intention of becoming a pastor. His progress was hindered by the Thirty Years War that devastated most of Europe.
The war affected him directly, particularly when a Swedish army swept through this hometown, burning down 400 buildings, including his family home and church. But that was not all. A plague followed the raid, killing 300 of his townspeople, including his brother Christian. The city of Wittenberg, where Gerhardt lived at the time, was spared enemy attacks but suffered greatly from the plague.
He ended up staying in Wittenberg for about 14 years, working as tutor for the children of a local pastor. In 1642, he moved to Berlin, where he tutored the children of the city’s Chancellor-Advocate, Andreas Barthold.
By that time, he had already written some hymns, but his talents flourished through his collaboration with Johann Crüger, another former student at Wittenberg, who served as cantor and organist at Berlin’s St. Nicholas Church.