Paul Gerhardt is one of the most important hymn writers of the Christian tradition, especially German Lutheran, “described as the greatest hymn writer in the German language.”* Though he wrote 133 hymns, he is probably best remembered for his translation into German of a Bernard of Clairvaux’s Latin hymn Salve caput cruentatum, which was later translated into English (from the German), “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Other hymns by Gerhardt translated into English include “All My Heart This Night Rejoices,” “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” “If God Himself Be for Me” (based on Romans 8), “The Duteous Day Now Closeth,” and “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me.”** CCEL has made available a work by T. B. Hewitt, Paul Gerhardt as a Hymn Writer and His Influence on English Hymnody, that highlights Gerhardt’s life and influence on English hymnody.
Gerhardt was born March 12, 1607 and was exposed to the German hymn writing tradition at Wittenberg University. He was ordained a Lutheran minister at the ripe age of 44, and married even after that. Only one of his children survived infancy. His first appointment to clergy was in Berlin, where in 1666 the division between Reformed and Lutheran theology was so abrasive that the government there banned any mention from either side of doctrinal differences from the pulpit. Gerhardt refused to obey this and was dismissed by his congregation shortly thereafter. To add to his suffering, his wife died two years later. Gerhardt died in 1676 after preaching in Lübben for seven years.***
The hymns of Gerhardt are profound, theologically rich, yet deeply moving. For example, Gerhardt recognized his own depravity and the importance of God’s sovereignty in his salvation, as he wrote in “Jesus, Thy Boundless Love to Me”:
More hard than marble is my heart,
And foul with sins of deepest stain;
But Thou the mighty Savior art,
Nor flowed thy cleansing blood in vain;
Ah soften, melt this rock, and may
Thy blood wash all these stains away!
Further consider Gerhardt’s deep gratitude for the work of the Saviour, as seen “Upon the Cross Extended“:
Upon the cross extended,
See, world, thy Lord suspended.
Thy Savior yields His breath.
The Prince of Life from Heaven
Himself hath freely given
To shame and blows and bitter death. . . .
I caused Thy grief and sighing
By evils multiplying
As countless as the sands.
I caused the woes unnumbered
With which Thy soul is cumbered,
Thy sorrows raised by wicked hands.
’Tis I who should be smitten,
My doom should here be written;
Bound hand and foot in hell.
The fetters and the scourging,
The floods around Thee surging,
’Tis I who have deserved them well.
Finally, what can compare to his lines in “O Sacred Head”?
What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
More examples could be easily provided. My call for conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists is this: become acquainted again with the great Christian poetry of this saint, Paul Gerhardt. Here is a man who has left Christianity a rich tradition of some of the greatest hymns ever written, and his work is in danger of being completely forgotten. Consider introducing your families and congregations to the rich hymns of Paul Gerhardt.
*”Paul Gerhardt: Tested in Satan’s Sieve” Commission on Worship 12 (2007): 3.
**Translated into English by John Wesley. Tozer included this hymn in his Christian Book of Mystical Verse (Harrisburg, Penn.: Christian Publications, 1963).