Hymn History: Now Thank We All Our God July 20, 2022

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“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:18

We are thrilled to share a series of brief accounts of how some of the great hymns of our faith were written. Each synopsis has been compiled through the research of Jerry Vargo and is shared by permission. It is our hope that these stories will be a help and encouragement to your Christian walk. This week we read the full and powerful story behind the lesser-known hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.”

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Martin Rinkart was the son of a poor coppersmith in Eilenburg. By hard work, thrift, and the use of his musical talents, he scraped together enough to pay his own way through the University of Leipzig. He studied theology, intending to become a pastor.

But when he applied for an open post as a deacon in 1610, he was turned down. He did not grumble, but took work in a Lutheran church school. On May 28, 1611, he undertook duties as a deacon of St. Anne’s Church in Eisleben, a common step toward a pastorate.

Amid all his travelling and other duties, Rinkart found time to write. He wrote a series of seven dramas inspired by the hundred-year anniversary of the Reformation. Three were published in 1613, 1618, and 1623, and we know at least two were performed publicly. He was also named poet laureate in 1614, and wrote a large number of books as well as hymns and cantatas. Some of his books have been lost; others survive only in a single copy.

Rinkart completed his Master’s degree in Theology in 1616, and then his hometown Eilenburg offered the position of archdeacon in his home town in 1617. He would spend the rest of his life there.

The Thirty Years’ War

The Thirty Years’ War was a series of wars in Central Europe between 1618 and 1648. It was one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history, as well as the deadliest European religious war, resulting in eight million casualties.

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-48) began when Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II of Bohemia attempted to curtail the religious activities of his subjects, sparking rebellion among Protestants. The war came to involve the major powers of Europe, with Sweden, France, Spain and Austria all waging campaigns primarily on German soil. Known in part for the atrocities committed by mercenary soldiers, the war ended with a series of treaties that made up the Peace of Westphalia. The fallout reshaped the religious and political map of central Europe, setting the stage for the old centralized Roman Catholic empire to give way to a community of sovereign states.

The Thirty Years’ War is still remembered to this day as the most destructive war ever fought in Germany, and that includes World Wars I and II. It featured gunpowder armies much larger than those seen in the pre-gunpowder world, and these armies tried to live off the land by plundering since there were no systems in place to supply and pay them. You can’t have multiple armies plundering a territory for thirty years without it doing an unbelievable and nearly irrecoverable amount of damage.

The war began as a conflict over religion in the nearby kingdom of Bohemia, but rapidly drew in almost all the countries of Europe. In principal, it was primarily a battle between the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and his allies, and the Lutheran princes in the Empire and their allies. In practice, it was far messier than that: for example, the Catholic Emperor had a ruthless Protestant general named Albrecht von Wallenstein, and the Protestant princes were funded by Catholic France.

Along with Germany and Bohemia, the war also drew in the Swedes and Danes on the side of the German Lutherans, and Spain on the side of the Emperor; the Dutch Republic was fighting for independence from Spain, so they were also drawn in; and France got involved militarily as a chance to take down Spain, an old rival ruled by the Habsburg family.

In 1617, shortly before the Thirty Years’ War broke out, Rinkart became a full pastor. Eilenburg was a walled city, and as the war developed, refugees flooded in. Overcrowding led to food shortages. By 1637, the situation was so bad that refugees fought in the streets for dead cats and birds. Plague soon followed. Each of the city’s four pastors held ten or more funerals a day. Overwhelmed, one ran away. The others died, leaving Rinkart to bury them. As the only pastor left, he often conducted services for as many as 40 to 50 persons a day—some 4,480 in all. In May of that year, his own wife died. By the end of the year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services.

He survived the entire war, pouring himself out in charity, giving away all the food and clothing he had obtained, except just enough to preserve his own hungry family. He even mortgaged his future earnings. After the Swedes had besieged the city for several months, they agreed to leave if an enormous ransom was paid. Rinkart pleaded for better terms, but the Swedish army was immovable. Knowing the sum could not be raised, Rinkart fell to his knees, praying so fervently that the Swedish captain was deeply moved and reduced the demand to a manageable amount.

Rinkart wrote a hymn of gratitude for his children to sing at the dinner table. “Nun danket alle Gott”.  It was written in 1636 in the middle of the war and later translated into English by Catherine Winkworth as “Now Thank We All Our God.” Given the difficulties of his life, it is surprising that the hymns that Rinkart penned were full of praise and trust in God even when they were speaking of the troubles that afflicted Germany.

Now Thank We All Our God

1. Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done,
In whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

2. Oh, 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!

3. All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and him who reigns
With them is highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

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