History of Hymns: “Now Thank We All Our God”

by Alissa Davis

"Now Thank We All Our God"
by Martin Rinckart; translated by Catherine Winkworth
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 102

 

Martin Rinckart

 

Now thank we all our God,
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

For modern American Protestant churchgoers, the hymn “Now thank we all our God,” likely conjures up an image of a congregation singing in unison, a pipe organ blasting away at a stately tempo, and a church full of people thinking about the approaching feast of stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce. In order to understand where this hymn came from, I would like to offer a very different image: A minister and his family sing this hymn before dinner to thank God for the scraps of food they have on the table in their meager home in a desolate refugee city that is afflicted with famine and disease and war. Since the earliest projected date for this hymn is 1636 and the oldest known date is 1663, this hymn was certainly written during or soon after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

Martin Rinckart (1586-1649) was an accomplished musician who studied at the University of Leipzig and then spent most of his career as a musician and archdeacon in the city of Eilenburg during the Thirty Years’ War. British Hymnologist J.R. Watson accounts that as one of the last surviving ministers in the city, Rinckart had to stretch personal resources to take care of refugees and spend most of his time performing nearly fifty funerals per day at the height of the plague. This experience during the Thirty Years’ War had a profound impact on Rinckart’s poetry, just as it did for his hymnwriter contemporaries. Lutheran scholar Carl Schalk observes that unlike the objective hymn texts of the Reformation period, the “cross and comfort” hymnody of the time reflected life situations of the people with greater metrical regularity, smoother language, and a theology relatable to everyday life.

The “Nun danket” tune, composed by Johann Crüger (1598-1662), first appears in 1647 in Crüger’s Praxis Pietatis Melica: Das ist Ubung der Gottseligkeit in Christlichen und Trostreichen Gesänägen (“Practice of Piety in Song: That is practice of Godliness in Christlike and Comforting Songs”), which was reprinted in its tenth edition the year 1661 with 550 chorales and subsequently became the most reprinted Protestant chorale book in Germany. Professor Watson speculates that “Nun Danket alle Gott” was probably included in the original German in the first edition of Rinckart’s Jesu Hertz-Büchlein (1636), but there is no evidence for this other than the fact that it appears in the second edition in 1663. In the 1663 edition, the hymn was entitled “Tisch- Gebetlein” (“A little table music”), which suggests that it was originally meant to be sung as grace before a meal.

Only a few of the 66 hymns in Rinckart’s collections were reprinted into German hymnbooks; “Now thank we all our God” was translated into English for British hymnals by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). Winkworth published almost 400 translations of German hymns into English for British hymn books between 1855 and 1869, and her collections were issued in three volumes: Lyra Germanica (1855), The Chorale Book for England (1863), and The Christian Singers of Germany (1869).

The text of the first two stanzas are based on Sirach 50:22-24: “Now therefore bless ye the God of all, which only doeth wondrous things everywhere, which exalteth our days from the womb, and dealeth with us according to his mercy. He grant us joyfulness of heart, and that peace may be in our days in Israel for ever (KJV).”

The first stanza is a depiction of a bounteous and gracious God who has blessed us and provided for us. The text is propelled forward by the phrases beginning with “who/whom” and ending in descriptors of God’s actions (anaphora):

who wondrous things has done,
in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mothers’ arms….

 

For someone in Rinckart’s dire situation, this expression of abundant gratitude might seem like hyperbole. If you don’t live in constant fear of starvation, the plague, and invading armies, you are already quite a bit more fortunate than he; and yet, he expands this description of God into the second stanza by bridging the two with similar ideas (anadiplosis) “countless gifts” at the end of the first stanza with a “bounteous God” at the beginning of stanza two.

The second stanza of the hymn moves to the future, praying for guidance and a continuation of thanks and praise:

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us still in grace,
and guide us when perplexed;
and free us from all ills,
in this world and the next.

 

The second stanza also employs the poetic device of anaphora by beginning each phrase with “and” in three successive phrases: “and keep us…,” “and guide us…,” “and free us….” The three verbs are arranged in an implied chronological order that leads up to the final phrase “this world and the next.”

The third and final stanza brings the hymn to a close by acting as a German Gloria Patri (Lesser Doxology), which offers praise to all Persons of the Trinity and acknowledges God’s eternal nature in the last line.

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given;
the Son, and him who reigns
with them in highest heaven,
the one eternal God,
whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.

 

 

 

Alissa Davis is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. She studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn, University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns