Home History of Hymns: Hymn offers invitation to joyous communion

History of Hymns: Hymn offers invitation to joyous communion

“Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness”
Johann Franck; translated by Catherine Winkworth
UM Hymnal, No. 612

Catherine Winkworth

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,
leave the gloomy haunts of sadness.
Come into the daylight’s splendor;
there with joy thy praises render
unto Christ, whose grace unbounded
hath this wondrous banquet founded.
High o’er all the heavens he reigneth,
yet to dwell with thee he deigneth.

It is likely, though regretful, that many United Methodist congregations have never sung this fine communion hymn. The 19th-century translation of this classic 17th-century German text seems to echo sentiments long lost to many people.

The first line of Catherine Winkworth’s worthy—though for some, dated—King James-style language probably does not stir the souls of many singers today unless they pull back the literary cobwebs and take a deeper look at the meaning of the words.

If we think of the perennial Christmas carol, “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” we capture the spirit of the opening line. Our souls are decked with joy because of the feast in which we are about to partake. Our excitement is heightened because the writer places the joy of the occasion in antithesis to “gloomy haunts of sadness.”

Christ invites us to a banquet that reflects “daylight’s splendor.” This is a feast that embodies Christ’s “grace unbounded”—an abundant and overflowing occasion. The host of this banquet reigns over the highest heavens, yet deigns to “grace” us on earth with his presence.
The theme of light and sun continues in the second stanza. The greatest joy, beyond any other imaginable, awaits us at this feast. A fount of life flows abundantly. Our only response is to fall at the feet of our Maker—the host of this feast. We question how we can be worthy to participate in this “blessed food from heaven.”

In the final stanza, we pray to “Jesus, [the] bread of life,” in obedience. His love heals our hurts. As we leave this banquet, we are overwhelmed at “how vast and deep its treasure.” We are genuinely humbled to be our host’s “guest in heaven” where he will receive us.
Of the German hymn writers of his era, Johann Franck (1618-1677) was second only to his contemporary Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).
Lutheran hymnologist Marilyn Kay Stulken notes that Franck “was one of the writers who marked the transition from the objective German ‘church song’ to a more personal and mystical kind of poetry.” In the generations after Martin Luther, hymns were influenced by the piety of Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), who focused more on personal transformation and a spirituality of renewal. Franck’s hymns foreshadow this shift in theology.

A recognized secular poet in his day, Franck is still best known for his hymns. Ms. Stulken states that they were “finished in form and of earnest faith and simplicity. . . .”

Born in Guben, Brandenburg, Germany, Franck was orphaned when he was 2 years old and raised by an uncle. He fortuitously received his education at the University of Königsberg because this was the only university that was not disrupted by the disastrous Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Indeed, the second line of the hymn, “leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,” may be an oblique reference to the horrors of this prolonged struggle. Franck was a lawyer, returning to Guben where he became a counselor, a mayor and a representative of the province to the Diet of Lower Lusatia.

The first nine stanzas of this communion hymn appeared in Johan Crüger’s Geistliche Kirchen-Melodien (1649). The full hymn then was included in the composer’s Crüger-Runge Gesangbuch (1653). Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), the undisputed queen of 19th-century translators from the German, translated six stanzas as poetry in her Lyra Germanica (1858). The tune SCHMÜCKE DICH first was paired with the text in Crüger’s 1649 collection and has been the standard tune ever since.

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