History of Hymns: “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright”
"O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright"
Philipp Nicolai; trans. Catherine Winkworth
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 247
O Morning Star, how fair and bright
thou beamest forth in truth and light,
O Sovereign meek and lowly!
Thou Root of Jesse, David’s Son,
my Lord and Master, thou hast won
my heart to serve thee solely!
Thou art holy,
fair and glorious,
rich in blessing,
rule and might o’er all possessing.
“O Morning Star How Fair and Bright” was originally written by Philipp Nicolai (1556-1608) and translated into English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). In 2008, we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the author’s death.
Nicolai was born on Aug. 10, 1566, at Mengeringhausen in Waldeck, Germany. He studied theology from 1575 to 1579 at the University of Erfurt and Wittenberg, and earned a doctorate in divinity in 1594 from Wittenberg University. He then returned home where he assisted his father as a preacher for four years.
Nicolai was then appointed as the Lutheran pastor at Herdecke. Two years later, he became the head pastor in Waldeck for Countess Margaretha, and also tutored her son, Wilhelm Ernst. While in this position he ran into opposition from the Calvinists. Nicolai used the Formula of Concord (1577) in his defense of Lutheran practices.
His next appointment was in Unna in Westphalia, beginning in 1596. During his appointment, the city fell to the Black Plague. According to biographer and hymn translator Catherine Winkworth, the city lost more than 1,400 people.
At this point in his life, Nicolai turned to the teachings of St. Augustine and the “contemplation of eternal life,” according to Winkworth. Here Nicolai produced his acclaimed Frewden-Spiegel dess ewigen Lebens (1599) or “The Joyous Mirror of Life Eternal,” where our hymn was first published.
In the preface, Nicolai states that he would want God “to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as a token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me in health) to comfort sufferers whom he should also visit with the pestilence.”
Later, Nicolai was forced out of his position by the Spanish and in 1598 was appointed to St. Katherine’s in Hamburg, was by far his most prominent appointment. He would serve the rest of his years in Hamburg, where he died in 1608 from a fever. Upon his death, he was regarded in Hamburg as a “second Chrysostom”—a reference to John Chrysostom, the fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople and an influential early church father.
One of Nicolai’s first great proponents was Winkworth, who more than any other brought the German chorale tradition to England. In 1856 she published Lyra Germanica, which contained 103 translations of German Hymns gathered from an 1833 collection, Versuch eines allgemein Gesang-und Gebetbuchs, compiled by Christian Karl Josias Freiherr von Bunsen (1791-1860). The success of this first volume would lead to the publishing of a second volume containing 123 translations, and spurred Winkworth to publish other books on the subject.
“O Morning Star How Fair and Bright” is sometimes called the “Queen of Chorales,” the “King of Chorales” being Nicolai’s “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying” (UM Hymnal, 720).
The hymn is based on many different biblical texts including Revelation 21:16, “I am the root and offspring of David, the bright and morning star.” Other names for Christ appear throughout the hymn: Sovereign, Root of Jesse, David’s Son, Lord, Master, heavenly Brightness, Love Divine, and Crown of Gladness.
Though in Germany the hymn was used for many years in weddings and funerals, it often appears today in the Epiphany sections of hymnals because of the imagery of light in the text. The journey of the Magi who followed the star is one of the major biblical themes of Epiphany.