Home History of Hymns: "Thou Hidden Love of God"

History of Hymns: "Thou Hidden Love of God"

“Thou Hidden Love of God”
Gerhard Tersteegen; translated by John Wesley
UM Hymnal, No. 414

Gerhard Tersteegen

Thou, hidden love of God, whose height,
Whose depth unfathomed no one knows,
I see from far thy beauteous light,
And inly sigh for thy repose;
My heart is pained, nor can it be
At rest till it finds rest in thee.

Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) was one of the two most prominent German hymn writers of the 18th century, the other being Joachim Neander, author of the famous hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”

Recognized as a Christian mystic, Tersteegen left the Reformed Church in 1719 in opposition to having communion with open sinners. He continued to study theology during a five-year bout with spiritual depression. This depression ended on Maundy Thursday in 1724 when he made a covenant with God to accept the grace of Jesus Christ and signed it with his own blood. From the time of this covenant until his death in 1769, Tersteegen worked to translate medieval writings of mystics and quietists and wrote several devotional books, including Geistliches Blumen-Gärtlein.

The Pietist movement in 18th-century Europe profoundly influenced Tersteegen’s way of life and his writings. Described by religion scholar Frederick Precht, this movement was characterized by an emphasis on personal spirituality and a dismissal of rigid traditions. In “Thou Hidden Love of God,” Tersteegen adopted new techniques of hymn writing, including first-person pronouns. The focus of spirituality shifted from the communal and worldly to the inner person and personal salvation.

John Wesley translated Tersteegen’s beautiful text from German to English while he was in Georgia around 1736. It was published in Wesley’s A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1738), the first hymnal published in America. This text undoubtedly attracted Wesley because of its inward reflection of spirituality. Methodism sprang from the Pietist movement, and Tersteegen’s hymn text artfully upholds the philosophy of this movement.

Sadly, only five of the original eight stanzas are included in the 1989 UM Hymnal. Stanzas one, three, four, six and eight appear in the hymnal with only slight changes in some pronouns for inclusive language purposes. Perhaps the original stanza two employs sensual metaphorical images that, though common for the time, are too explicit for today’s singers: “Thy secret voice . . . sweetness of the yoke . . . yet wide my passion rove. . . .” Stanza five employs strong emotive language with which it is difficult to identify today: “My vile affections crucify, nor let one darling lust survive. . . .” Stanza seven is strongly worded with “thrice happy he who views with scorn Earth’s toys, for Thee his constant Flame.”

The stanzas that appear in the UM Hymnal speak of God’s “unfathomable” love and mercy. Images of humanity as a duteous child crying to “Abba, Father” to “chase this self will from all my heart” convey a sense that there should be no self will left if one is obedient. The idea that God is everything we need is emphasized in the final stanza: “Speak to my inmost soul and say, ‘I am thy love, thy God, thy all!’”
VATER UNSER, the tune that was assigned to this text, was one of John Wesley’s favorites and published in his Foundery Collection (1742). VATER UNSER was the name ascribed to the tune from the incipit, or first line, of Martin Luther’s “Lord’s Prayer.” The composer is unknown, and it is often called OLD 112th because of its use in British and Scottish Psalter settings of Psalm 112.

The arrangement found in the UM Hymnal was harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1726 and adapted from his Cantata 102. Bach used this chorale in several of his cantatas and in his monumental St. John Passion. Other composers have written variations on the tune, including Felix Mendelssohn.

Ms. Stewart is a student in the master of sacred music program, Perkins School of Theology, and studies hymnology with Dr. Michael Hawn.

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