Monday, November 10, 2008

Martin Luther

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther, German theologian and reformer who rebelled against the abuses of the medieval Catholic Church and (the legend goes) began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenburg.

You can read many more learned articles on Luther and his historic and theological importance than I could provide, so I'll confine myself to his hymns.

Luther had some musical training in his youth and played both the lute and the flute. He composed many of the tunes sung with his hymn texts, which numbered about three dozen and were published intermittently during his lifetime. Since each of his hymns have been translated into other languages numerous times, it sometimes seems that there are many more.

This is undoubtedly his most famous hymn (taken partially from Psalm 46) sung across nearly all Christian denominations -- even Catholic hymnals include it now -- and 1t also has its own separate Wikipedia entry.

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper 'mid the raging flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
With craft and power great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not an equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right one on our side,
The One of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, verily;
Anointed One by name,
From age to age the same,
And Christ shall win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
The truth to triumph through us:
The powers of evil grim,
We tremble not for them;
Their rage we can endure,
For lo, their doom is sure,
One little word shall fell them.

That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through God who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
This truth shall last forever.

Martin Luther, 1529; tr. Frederick F. Hedge, 1853; alt.
Martin Luther, 1529

This is the version most familiar to American singers. There are reportedly more than seventy different translations from Luther's German text into English, though most of them are not regularly sung. A popular translation used in the UK is by Thomas Carlyle:
A safe stronghold our God is still

Industrious translator
Catherine Winkworth contributed
A sure stronghold our God is he

Henry J. Buckoll took a crack at it:
A tower of strength our God doth stand

and Richard Robinson Whittingham gave us
A mountain fastness is our God

Elizabeth Wordsworth (daughter of hymnwriter Christopher Wordsworth) translated it as
God is a stronghold and a tower

Godfrey Thring, writer of many hymn texts, came up with
A fortress sure is God our King

These seven were all nineteenth century translations, developed to meet a growing demand for hymns -- editors probably wanted unique translations for their new hymnals before the Hedge and Carlyle versions became the standards. Supposedly there are ten times as many more out there! And that's not counting the many
translations into other languages (click on the flags).


Anonymous said...

I didn't know Godfrey Thring was a hymnwriter. . .here is a short poem quoted by Frances Ridley Havergal, a 19th Century hymnwriter in one of her Royal books, My King:

'Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing,
Bringing news of sin forgiven;
Jesus comes in sounds of gladness,
Leading souls redeemed to heaven.

'Jesus comes again in mercy,
When our hearts are bowed with care;
Jesus comes again, in answer
To an earnest, heartfelt prayer.'


C.W.S. said...

Thanks for stopping by!

Those two verses are part of a longer hymn by Thring which can be seen here:

and a list of many of this other hymns is here:

Leland Bryant Ross said...

My online hymnal has two Esperanto versions, both beginning—click here for Esperanto flag ;-)—Remparo estas nia Di' (taken from Adoru kantante and Himnaro Esperanta); the first is only a three-stanza translation, so I completed it with the fourth verse from the other.

On another point, Godfrey Thring also contributed two of the nine stanzas gives for Crown Him with Many Crowns; they are not the four most commonly hymnalized, but that is one of those great hymns that, done up properly, can support nine verses. IMHO.

C.W.S. said...

Nice to see you back.

Nine verses would be a bit much even for me, though I do love the tune and much of the text. (I think we used six verses in our project, including one of Thring's).

Josh Osbun said...

I think it might almost be more fun to study the variant translations of "Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word." I personally like the old translation:

"Lord, keep us in Thy Word and work,
Restrain the murd'rous Pope and Turk,
Who fain would tear from off Thy throne
Christ Jesus, Thy beloved Son.

Lord Jesus Christ, Thy power make known,
For Thou art Lord of lords alone;
Shield Thy poor Christendom, that we,
May evermore sing praise to Thee.

Thou Comforter of priceless worth,
Give one mind to Thy flock on earth,
Stand by us in our final strife,
And lead us out of death to life."

Justus Jonas added these two stanzas:

"Destroy their counsels, Lord our God,
And smite them with an iron rod,
And let them fall into the snare
Which for Thy Christians they prepare.

So that at last they may perceive
That, Lord our God, Thou still dost live,
And dost deliver mightily
All those who put their trust in Thee."

Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (edition of 1919) 274

C.W.S. said...

I'm sure we will be revisiting Luther's hymns at some point. On the church calendar of a number of denominations, the day of his death (February 18) is also commemorated.

That translation is certainly a colorful one, but I can't imagine even the most conservative of Lutheran synods still singing about "the Pope and Turk."