Article

History of Hymns: “By Gracious Powers”

by C. Michael Hawn

"By Gracious Powers"
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trans. by Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 517

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.*


Of all of the hymns written in the 20th century, “By Gracious Powers” has one of the most poignant stories.

Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate provides the setting for this text, written in the waning days of World War II by the imprisoned Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945):

“From the Gestapo bunker in Prinz-Albert-Strasse, Berlin, to which he had been transferred to Tegel on 8 October 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this New Year message to his friends on the last New Year’s Eve of his life, 31 December 1944; it was smuggled out of his prison, and has become one of Bonhoeffer’s best know compositions.”

Bonhoeffer had traveled to the United States in 1939, where he was met with acclaim among theologians. Knowing the perilous situation in Germany, he was encouraged by many in the United States to remain in this country.

He chose to return to Germany, however, where he participated in the Nazi resistance and was arrested in April 1943. The Nazis executed Bonhoeffer on April 9, 1945, just a month before the end of World War II.

How does a smuggled letter from a Nazi prison become a hymn? The poem made its way to his mother in a letter dated Dec. 28, 1944. It was then printed in Brief und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft by Eberhard Bethge and then translated into English for Letters and Papers from Prison (1953).

In 1959, the poem appeared in two additional sources: the German text was cited in a youth hymnal Die singende Shar published in Berlin, and in Bonhoeffer’s posthumously published book, The Cost of Discipleship, under the title “New Year 1945” in seven stanzas.

The World Council of Churches wanted to include it in their international hymnal Cantate Domino (published in 1974). The editor, British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982), invited one of the leading hymn writers of the last half of the 20th century, British Methodist Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), to versify five of the stanzas.

Green’s English setting captures the depth of the original poem as Bonhoeffer struggled with his impending death. Perhaps not since William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote his hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” has such a powerful hymn on God’s providence been written.

British hymnologist J. R. Watson notes: “Bonhoeffer’s exemplary life and martyrdom have given this text an authority which is unique among twentieth-century hymns. . . . But the hymn stands on its own, without the need of special circumstances to justify its inclusion.”

The singer is captured by the eloquence and depth in the first line: We are “sheltered” by the “gracious powers” of God, allowing us to “confidently wait . . . come what may.” The grace of God, pervading our existence, is “with us night and morning” and always “greet[s] us each new day.”

Knowing the context of the author’s circumstance clarifies the second stanza, as Bonhoeffer faced “evil days” with “burdens hard to bear.” But God’s “sure salvation” prepares our “frightened souls.”

The third stanza recalls the image of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane: “ . . . when this cup you give is filled to brimming/with bitter sorrow. . . . ” Following Christ’s example, “we take [this cup] thankfully and without trembling” from Christ’s “good and so beloved a hand.”

The final stanza places the difficulties of our lives within the broader context of a life belonging to our Creator. “The joy we had, the brightness of your sun” overshadows the burdens of life and “all the days we lived through,” and we rest assured that “our whole life shall then be [Christ’s] alone.”

I have sent this text to friends who have endured great loss and found that it both articulated their circumstance and provided profound assurance of God’s presence.
 

*Trans. © 1974 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60189. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns