History of Hymns: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”

by C. Michael Hawn
Martin Luther
Martin Luther

“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”
by Martin Luther;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 110.

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

No hymn is identified with the Protestant Reformation more than Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.” Luther (1483-1546) left a body of congregational songs that both defined the Lutheran confessional tradition and became truly ecumenical in influence.

The story of Luther’s reforming movement is widely known. A Roman Catholic monk, his study led him to believe that the Church of Rome was corrupt. On October 31, 1517, he posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, inviting debate. Luther broke with Rome in 1521, refusing to retract his writings before the Diet of Worms. Subsequently, he was recognized as the leader of the German Reformation.

In addition to skills as a writer, translator and preacher, Luther was an amateur musician. His thirty-seven hymns stand alongside his theological writings and his translation of the Bible into German as testaments of his creativity and intellectual ability.

United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young summarizes well Luther’s contribution to hymnody: he “wrote several original hymns and melodies, revised many Latin hymns to German texts set to adaptations of plainsong and folk melodies, and encouraged the composition of new texts and rhythmic hymn melodies. His thirty-seven hymns and paraphrase are cast in simple, plain, and sometimes rough phrases and striking metaphors, qualities that are for the most part lost in English translations.”

Martin Luther
Frederick Henry Hedge

Over 100 English-language versions of Luther’s hymn exist. A Unitarian minister from the United States, Frederick Henry Hedge (1805-1890), provided in 1853 the translation that appears in many hymnals today. Hodge was very qualified, the son of a Harvard College professor, educated in Germany and at Harvard. In 1857, he was appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge in the United States, and Professor of German Literature at Harvard in 1872. While Hedge has authored eleven other texts or translations over the decades, none can compare to the popularity of “A mighty fortress.” Hymnologist Richard Watson notes that Hedge prepared, “a splendid translation, written with assurance and complete competence.” After a detailed analysis comparing the English translation with Luther’s original German, he concludes, “It has stood the test of time remarkably well.”

Compare Hedge’s translation written in 1831 with one by Scottish Calvinist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) that appears in a number of hymnals:

A safe stronghold our God is still,
a trusty shield and weapon;
he’ll keep us clear from all the ill
that have us now ‘o’ertaken.
The ancient prince of hell
hath risen with purpose fell;
strong mail of craft and power
he weareth in this hour;
on earth is not his fellow.

While conveying strength, the phrases do not flow as naturally as those written by Hedge, and the language is generally more archaic.

Luther’s German version is a metrical paraphrase of Psalm 46 with Christological images embedded. Psalm 46 begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” “A Mighty Fortress” may have been written in homage to Luther’s friend Leonhard Kaiser, who was martyred. The first German printing appeared in Form und ordnung Gaystlicher Gesang und Psalmen (Augsburg, 1529). While the exact date of composition is uncertain, it may be from this same year, coinciding with the second Diet of Speyer, the year that the German princes made their formal “protest” against Rome, thus being known as “Protestants.” Often called “the true National Hymn of Germany,” the hymn spread rapidly and was sung on the battlefield of Leipzig in 1631 during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Heinrich Heine, the famous nineteenth-century German poet, called it “the Marseillaise Hymn of the Reformation.”

The five stanzas of the first English version appeared soon in Miles Coverdale’s Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes (ca. 1535), the first English translation. Coverdale was also a translator of the Bible, and his versions of the Psalms are still in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.  His version begins:

Oure God is a defence and towre,
A good armoure and good weape;
He hath been ever oure helpe and succoure,
In all the troubles that we have ben in.

Leading Catholic liturgical scholar and musician Edward Foley calls Martin Luther “a model pastoral musician… a proponent and composer of music from the people and for the people, as evidenced in his chorales.” Speaking specifically of Ein feste Burg—the German title for “A mighty fortress” – and after pages of careful analysis, Fr. Foley notes that this chorale “appears to be a paradigm of liturgical ‘people music.’”. Luther’s “craft is affirmed by its ageless singability” — high praise from a Catholic scholar, indicating not only the quality of Luther’s work, but also its ecumenical popularity.

On occasion, I have heard a minister invite the congregation to conclude the hymn after only the first stanza in order to save time. While this is a questionable practice under most circumstances, it is particularly a problem in this hymn. Hedge’s translation states, “on earth is not his equal.” The pronoun “his” in this case refers to the Devil – “our ancient foe” and not to Christ. It may be best not to leave the Devil in charge by stopping at the end of stanza one!

A final word must be said about a popular notion among many pastors who state that Luther (and the Wesleys) went into bars to find congregational tunes. This leaves a very inaccurate impression. It is true that both Luther and the Wesleys either composed or incorporated musical settings reflecting the musical styles of their day. In the case of Ein feste Burg, the original music reflects a Renaissance folk style. Very few tunes may be traced to a specific folk song, however, and none to a bar. Some have confused Luther’s use of the “Bar Form” (AAB), the melodic structure of many German chorales (including Ein feste Burg), with his possible presence in drinking establishments.

The original rhythm of this tune (not found in The United Methodist Hymnal) is quite lively and adds much to the vitality of this strong text. You can be sure that Luther and the Wesleys gave careful attention to the melodies they chose to pair with their texts. Justifying the use of specific current popular melodies with classic hymn texts by referring to the historical precedent of Luther and the Wesleys is not only inaccurate, but also borders on hymnological heresy. This is not to say that such practices might be helpful for invigorating historical texts, but the precedent cannot be convincingly established by referring to either Martin Luther or the Wesley brothers.

 

 

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns

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