So, let’s talk about hymns.
A hobby of mine is learning about how hymns came to be. The stories are moving, occasionally tragic, and demonstrate strength through God’s faith like nothing else. I could talk about Rejoice, The Lord is King, which the Wesley brothers wrote after they watched women and elderly beaten in front of them by mobs in Cornwall, while they stood firm in their belief that God would protect them. I could talk about the well-known story of Silent Night, composed for guitar accompaniment when the organ in a rural German church broke on Christmas Eve, and now one of our most beloved carols.
But I like to learn about and share some of the lesser-known, and often just as moving, stories.
Today, we’re talking about Now Thank We All Our God. It’s in the UMH (United Methodist Hymnal) as #102, but is known all across the Christian tradition. It was written by a Lutheran pastor in some of the most inconceivable conditions.
German Lutheran pastor Martin Rinkart served in the walled town of Eilenburg, his hometown, during the horrors of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648. The city became a refuge for the surrounding areas, and when the Swedish Army barricaded the city gates, the fugitives started to die from plague and famine. The population of Germany went from 16 million to 6 million during the war.
1637 was the year of The Great Pestilence, which saw the death of 2 of the walled city’s 4 pastors. The third pastor fled the city and could not be persuaded to return, and so Martin Rinkart was left by himself to conduct 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.
The Swedes at last demanded a huge ransom, and it was Rinkart who left the safety of the city walls to negotiate with the enemy. Due to his courage and faith, there was soon a conclusion of hostilities, and the Swedish Army left Eilenberg to start rebuilding.
What blows my mind about this hymn is that he wrote it after all of that. After burying nearly 5,000 of his countrymen, including his wife and two of his fellow pastors, what could he have found to be thankful of?
There are 138 scripture verses devoted to the subject of thanksgiving, but why are there so few hymns on the subject? And besides that, when is the last time that you thanked God after something didn’t go your way, after a disappointment or a pain in your life?
I know that I have thanked Him in retrospect. There have been times when He closed a door that was where I thought He wanted me to be, and it was devastating. Only later did I see that the door opened instead led to multiple doors open from there. I see why he led me in that direction and not the other. But it takes an extraordinary faith to trust that bigger picture while you’re in the moment of devastation and pain, before you have the luxury of seeing where He plans on taking your life. He uses closed doors– and in fact, I believe He closes them Himself sometimes– all to put you where He wants you to be, and in the midst of pain and sorrow, it’s so difficult to remember that it’s all part of what God has in store.
It must be even more difficult to write a hymn of thanksgiving during such incredible pain and sorrow, but that’s exactly what Martin Rinkart did, and Now Thank We All Our God has been sung around the world ever since.