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History of Hymns: "If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee"

"If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee"
Georg Neumark; trans. by Catherine Winkworth
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 142

Georg Neumark

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.

Great translators can make the difference in how future generations will use hymns. Nineteenth-century England had two translators to which today’s hymn singers owe much. What John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was to the translation of Latin and Greek hymns in the mid-nineteenth century, so was Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) to the promulgation of German hymnody in English toward the century’s end.

At a time when increasing interest in the theology of continental Europe meant the Protestant church in Britain was taking an interest in the Pietism of Germany, Winkworth sought to explore the hymn texts of what scholar and hymn writer Erik Routley called “the real birthplace of congregational hymnody.”

Originally, Winkworth undertook the translation of nearly 400 texts by some 170 authors as a personal devotional exercise, revealing her expert skill in the manipulation of language. Her second published volume of texts, Lyra Germanica: Second Series: The Christian Life (1858), contained a single text by poet Georg Neumark, “If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee.”

Neumark (1621-1681) first published in 1657 in Jena his original text, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten,” in his Fortgepflantzter musikalisch-poetischer Lustwald. It contained seven stanzas of six lines, set to an original g-minor tune in a dance-like triple meter. He composed it after securing a tutoring post at Kiel, a point of much relief for him after a period of misfortune and instability.

This Trostlied or “song of consolation” admonishes Christians to put their faith wholly in God. The hymn draws on parts of Psalm 55 as well as 1 Peter 3:8-15, the epistle for the fifth Sunday after Trinity, which contains instructions to honor life and seek peace. This text is especially poignant in the context of the atrocities and violence of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which would have still been fresh in the minds of the singers.

The tune itself has had its own journey. The haunting melody has been used in various contexts by artists from J.S. Bach (1685-1750) to Lloyd Pfautsch (1921-2003).

Recently, Neumark’s tune was set to a text in the Book of Praise (Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1997) by American hymn writer Pat Michaels, which explores the many facets of healing (“Sometimes a Healing Word is Comfort”).

Neumark’s hymn (in Danish) is also featured in the 1987 Academy Award-winning Danish film Babettes Gœstebud (Babette’s Feast), and thus has traveled, according to hymnologist Lawrence Lohr, “from Jena in Germany to Oscar night in Hollywood.”

Winkworth is known for her sensitivity to the original German in her translations. She said, “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.”

In 1863, Winkworth published the famous Chorale-Book for England, containing about 200 of her translations set to music. In it, her treatment of Neumark’s text is readjusted to fit the meter of his tune. Her translations reflect the Pietistic tenor of the time and her Evangelical Lutheran upbringing.

Winkworth enjoyed a measure of renown in her own time, and was “a pioneer in women’s higher education,” according to church historian Martin E. Marty. Dr. Marty recalls seeing a one-act play with an all female cast, in which Winkworth was the heroine. He characterizes Winkworth as a sort of “proto-feminist” who was possessed of “a hunger for learning and self-expression.”

Sacred music scholar Robin A. Leaver offers a fitting summary of Winkworth’s contribution to hymnody, saying that she “faithfully transplanted Germany’s best hymns and made them bloom with fresh beauty in their new gardens.”

Ms. Donaldson is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn’s in the master of sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology.