If you simply allow God to lead you…

This morning’s hymn of the day- If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee, has been stuck in my head all afternoon. I hope it’s one you like, too 🙂

Fred D. Gealy has written concerning this hymn:
“The German text was written in 1640 or 1641 after Neumark had had the bitter experience of being robbed by highwaymen of all but a prayer book and a few coins, and was long without work and almost destitute, when unexpectedly he was employed as a tutor in the home of a wealthy judge in Kiel. Then and there, he wrote this hymn based on Psalm 55:22 and entitled it “A Song of Comfort: God will care for and help everyone in His own time.”
And so, in the first line, “suffer” means to “allow” or “let” God to walten, i.e., govern or control one’s life.

The hymn has a beautiful poetry that is sometimes difficult to catch while singing. I’ve found myself returning to it in my hymnal again and again, to re-read the words in a prayerful reminder to trust the Lord with all of my heart.
If thou but suffer God to guide thee, and hope in God through all thy ways,
God will give strength, whate’er betide thee, and bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love builds on the rock that naught can move.
Only be still, and wait God’s leisure in cheerful hope, with heart content
to take whate’er thy Maker’s pleasure and all-discerning love hath sent;
we know our inmost wants are known, for we are called to be God’s own.Sing, pray, and keep God’s ways unswerving; so do thine own part faithfully,
and trust God’s word; though undeserving, thou yet shalt find it true for thee.
God never yet forsook at need the soul that trusted God indeed.

Now, this hymn was written by George Neumark, but it was translated by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), who was a phenomenal woman. She was known as a “a pioneer in women’s higher education,” and a sort of “proto-feminist” who was possessed of “a hunger for learning and self-expression”, according to church historian Martin E. Marty. She was a tireless advocate for women’s rights, and even spent time working for the Clifton Association for Higher Education for Women, an organization dedicated to promoting women’s rights.

While becoming renowned as a ground-breaking feminist, Catherine Winkworth was also one of the church’s greatest hymn translators. She spent some time in Dresden when she was young, and became captivated with German hymnody, and began working to translate into English as many of those hymns as she possibly could. She was responsible for making accessible to the English-speaking church over 400 German hymn texts from the German congregational singing traditions, both Lutheran and Moravian, and is credited with introducing the German chorale to the English church.

What makes her work truly remarkable are her skillful translations and the care she took in them. It was important to her that she stay as true to the original German as possible, and that sometimes meant she needed to change the meter or the tune, but according to her: “a hymn that sounds popular and homelike in its own language must sound so in ours if it is to be really available for devotional purposes, and it seems to me allowable for this object to make such alterations in the meter as lie in the different nature of the language.” I love how sacred music scholar Robin A. Leaver describes Winkworth’s contribution to Christian hymnody: she “faithfully transplanted Germany’s best hymns and made them bloom with fresh beauty in their new gardens.”

Next time you’re sitting in the pews waiting for church to start, flip back to the Authors/Composers/Translators index in the back of your hymnal, and take a look at the many other hymns that Ms. Winkworth gave us. You’re probably familiar with Now Thank We All Our God, you’ll probably be singing Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates in a few weeks during the Easter season, maybe you’ll also sing Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, maybe you’re familiar with the Advent/Christmas tune Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying… I could go on.

And for our advanced readers: when you turn to the hymn pages and look at the bottom, you’ll see where Catherine Winkworth is marked as translator, and you can also see the different original sources. There are several that come from the Gesangbuch, which is the hymnal for the Moravian church, a congregational-singing pietist movement that I’ve mentioned before, which pre-dates Lutheranism by a couple of centuries. You’ll note some from the Lutheran tradition- one has a tune attributed to J.S. Bach, which is a dead giveaway for Lutheran heritage. And you’ll also see one or two from metrical psalm books, which would have come from a German Catholic or Anglican tradition, since they were among the last denominations to embrace the ease of hymn-singing over the cumbersome nature of metrical psalm tunes. A fun game I like to play is to guess which tradition of the three the hymn comes from, when it’s not obvious. You can usually find the answer by googling the author’s name 🙂

Catherine Winkworth is one of the most amazing figures in Christian hymnody. The beauty that one dedicated individual can give to an entire, global church is just staggering. Without God’s guidance of her life and her work, the hymnody of our church would not be the same. I don’t even think our church would be the same. But while her work itself came from God, this remarkable woman chose to follow God’s call for her life. She chose to trust Him, to become an instrument for his work, and through that work he used her life to have a profound affect on the future of Christianity. Little is written about her personal life, but her position as an active feminist at that point in history could not have been an easy journey, and her personal courage as a woman is something to be admired. And as we all struggle to discern God’s call for our lives, her personal courage as a Christian is something to be emulated.

Besides my own knowledge, my hymnology coursework, and private study, my sources were gbod.org, hymnary.org, and the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal. If you’d like to learn more, they’re a great place to start.

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