THE Thirty Years War was the most destructive conflict in history until the First World War, enveloping most of Europe from 1618 to 1648.
It started as a religious conflict but evolved into a war to decide who would govern Europe, causing at least eight million deaths not only from military engagements but also from famine and plague.
Yet out of this long period of misery and hardship came the wonderful hymn of praise and thanksgiving, Now Thank We All Our God.
It was written by Martin Rinckart, who was born in Eilenburg, Saxony, the son of a poor coppersmith. He became a chorister at St Thomas School in Leipzig and went on to study theology at the city’s university. Later he took Lutheran holy orders, and became precentor of the church at Eisleben, the home town of Martin Luther (1483-1546).
In 1617, when he was 31, he became Archdeacon at his native town of Eilenburg. The following year the war broke out. Being a walled city, Eilenburg became a refuge for political and military fugitives, and was drastically overcrowded, with the result that disease and starvation were commonplace. Armies overran it three times. The Rinckart home was a refuge for the victims, even though Martin was hard-pressed to provide for his own family. Soldiers were quartered in his house, and they frequently plundered his tiny stores of food, but this was mild compared with what was to come.
In 1637, 19 years into the gruelling war, plague arrived in Eilenburg. The town was particularly overcrowded with fugitives from the country districts where the Swedes had been spreading devastation, and the disease spread like wildfire. In that one year 8,000 died, including all the other clergymen in the area and Rinckart’s wife. Rinckart had to carry out all the funerals, sometimes 50 in a day in mass graves, and visited the sick and dying. However he escaped the illness. The plague was followed by a famine so extreme that reportedly thirty or forty people would fight in the streets for a dead cat or crow. Rinckart did what he could to organise assistance, and gave away everything but the barest rations for his own family. His home was always surrounded by a crowd of starving people.
In the midst of all this suffering the Swedes imposed a tribute of 30,000 thalers on the town. I have done my best to find out what this means in modern money, but I failed. However obviously even a few pence was going to be more than the stricken town could manage. Rinckart ventured to the Swedish camp with a group of starving citizens to beg the general for mercy. It was refused. He turned to his followers and said: ‘Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.’ He fell to his knees and prayed with such earnestness that the Swedish general relented, and lowered his demand to 2,000 florins. Although he could not afford to feed and clothe his children adequately, Rinckart paid the tribute himself by mortgaging his future income for many years.
Extraordinary as it seems under the circumstances, it was at around this time that Nun Danket Alle Gott, or Now Thank We All Our God, started life as a grace, or short prayer before meals. It became a fully fledged hymn as the prospect of peace dawned, and was set to music by the German composer Johann Crüger who published it in his 1647 Praxis Pietatis Melica, the most widely used Lutheran hymnal of the 17th century. The Westphalia Treaty ended the war in 1648 and Rinckart, who had served his citizens so loyally and steadfastly the entire time, died a year later, aged 63.
Crüger also suffered in the Thirty Years War. Living in Berlin, he and his family were often hungry. In 1636 he contracted plague but survived; his wife and five children died. The following year he remarried, to the 17-year-old daughter of an innkeeper. They had 14 children, most of whom died in infancy.
The hymn was translated into English around 1856 by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). She was the daughter of a silk merchant, born in London and brought up in Manchester and Bristol. She is credited with one of the best puns of all time. At the age of 16, after hearing about British General Sir Charles Napier’s capture, against orders, of the (then) Indian province of Sindh, she remarked to her teacher that Napier’s despatch home should have read ‘Peccavi’, which is Latin for ‘I have sinned’, and a pun on ‘I have Sindh’. She sent her joke to the humorous magazine Punch which printed it as a factual report, incorrectly attributing it to Napier, under the heading ‘Foreign Affairs’ on 18 May 1844.
Here are her words:
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.
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 in His grace,
and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills,
in this world and the next!
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.
Here it is sung by the choir of Gloucester Cathedral,
And here it is played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.
A popular arrangement was made by John Rutter and here it is performed by a South African choir and orchestra.
I am not usually a great fan of modern hymn arrangements but I was taken with this joyful piano duet version by the American composer Mark Hayes (b 1953).
The hymn was borrowed by J S Bach (1685-1750) for several works including his Cantata 79 (BWV 79), here played by the Philadelphia Orchestra with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
It was arranged for organ by Virgil Fox (1912-1980) and here is a delightful performance on a restored old instrument – it’s hard work for the person who has to pump it!
And here is the same version on a more standard organ, in which you can see how difficult it is to play.
Finally, I don’t know who wrote this arrangement but I chose it because of the awesome organ and the enjoyment the young player got from it.