Gerhardt, Paulus (Paul)


b Gräfenhainichen, SW of Wittenberg, Germany c1607, d Lübben am Spree, Saxe-Merseburg, 1676. Born to Lutheran parents in an agricultural town, he had many siblings but seems to have been orphaned while quite young. From the age of 15, being proficient in Lat, he attended school at Grimma and from 1628 to c1642 was a student at the Univ of Wittenberg. In 1637 a fire started by Swedish soldiers destroyed his home and all his family records, which has limited our knowledge of his first 30 years, overshadowed as they are with the ‘Thirty Years War’. But for nearly 10 years including some of his happiest, c1643–51, he lived in Berlin where he wrote Gelegenheitsgedichte, 18 items of which his friend J Crüger (qv) included in the Praxis pietatis melica. In 1651, aged 45, he was ordained as provost/pastor at Mittenwalde; he married in 1655 and 2 years later began his pastorate at St Nicholas’ Ch, Berlin. Here the divisions between his own Lutheran faith and the Reformed version became sharper. But in 1666 he was summoned to a consistory court and threatened with deposition; he resigned rather than sign a document supporting the liberal and syncretistic views of the Elector of Brandenburg. In 1668 he was called to Lübben as pastor and archdeacon, where from 1669 he spent his remaining years. The Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche in Lübben has a portrait and a stained glass window depicting him. While remaining firmly Lutheran, his hymns have a rare and deeply personal devotional sweetness not easy to convey in translation; in spite of all its distresses, home means joy, this earth is sweet, heaven is the natural focus and God is above all a Friend. Erik Routley says that with him ‘the truculent note fades; the personal and hopeful note is heard more strongly’, while Catherine Winkworth compares his ‘purest and sweetest expression’ with that of Geo Herbert in England.

His verses range widely in their themes, and while not among the most prolific German hymnwriters, writing some 132 texts, he ranks with the greatest, perhaps second only to Luther. But he was never truly recognised as such in his own day; he simply sang ‘as the bird that sings in the branches’ (Goethe). He adhered to traditional German metrical forms, and Crüger’s successor Johann Georg Ebeling (1637–76) further promoted Gerhardt’s hymns both by setting them to music and by publishing them. They proved surprisingly acceptable to German RC churches, but in translation they were not well-known in England until the mid-19th c, chiefly through Catherine Winkworth (qv) and the versions published by John Kelly (d1890) in 1867. Like the texts of other Germans, not to mention Britons, some of Gerhardt’s ‘flow on for too long, unto they have outgrown their strength’. But Lutherans have prized such hymns as ‘O Jesus Christ,/ thy manger is/ my paradise at which my soul reclineth…’ (1941 trans). Among studies of his life and work, Theodore B Hewitt’s detailed study Paul Gerhardt as a Hymn Writer and his Influence of English Hymnody (Yale and OUP, 1918) is still useful, and lists 31 translators of his work into English up to that time. 9 of these were women, 6 were Americans, and Jn Kelly (who studied at Glasgow and Edinburgh and Bonn) was the most prolific. 9 translations feature in the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Since Gerhardt was probably born just 100 years before C Wesley, 2007 saw the 4th centenary of the former and the 3rd of the latter, which were duly celebrated together. Nos.349, 439, 844, 878*.