Paul Gerhardt

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676)

Gerhardt is one of the most significant German Lutheran hymn writers of the early modern period whose compositions are still accessible today in everyday worship. His songs – and other writings – are notable for crossing confessional boundaries.

Gerhardt was born to a middle-class family in Saxony-Anhalt. After the death of his parents in 1622, his secondary education in Grimma placed particular emphasis on Lutheran religious education, as well as proficiency in Latin and music. In 1628, Gerhardt matriculated at the University of Wittenberg, where he developed his poetic skills, most likely under August Buchner (1591-1661), and his use of hymnody as a tool for religious instruction and pastoral care under Paul Röber (1587-1651).

For reasons that are not clear since he did not take up a post there, Gerhardt moved to Berlin in 1643. It was the period in which he came to public attention as a hymn writer: Johann Crüger (1598-1662), composer and cantor at the Nikolaikirche in Berlin, included 18 of Gerhardt’s hymns in what was to be of the most important Lutheran hymn books, Praxis pietatis melica (1647), which had increased to 95 hymns by Gerhardt by the last, tenth edition in 1661. Gerhardt collaborated with Crüger for nearly twenty years. Later, both Johann Georg Ebeling (1637-1676) and Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) composed melodies for Gerhardt’s hymns.

Most of Gerhardt’s hymns were composed during his period as provost of the rural parish of Mittenwalde. He returned to Berlin to take up a position of deacon at the Nikolaikirche in 1657.

However, in Berlin he became caught up in the religious tensions between the Lutheran and Calvinist faiths in the 1660s. Gerhardt refused to sign Elector Friedrich Wilhelm’s (1620-1688) tolerance edict of 1664 which demanded that the clergy refrain from public religious polemic. He was stripped of his office in 1666, an event which caused an outcry in the city because of his general popularity as a preacher, pastor and poet. In the event, the elector did not require Gerhardt to sign the edict, since it was shown that the dean had never broken the anti-polemic rule. He was allowed to keep his position – but Gerhardt refused on grounds of conscience. He was finally removed from office in 1668. There is no evidence of hymns composed by him after 1667. Gerhardt took up a position in a small parish in Lübben, then part of Electoral Saxony, where he died in 1676.

Among other things, Gerhardt’s 139 hymns and poems cover the liturgical year, festivals, catechism and Christian life, as well as dealing with issues such as friendship, comfort, sickness, death, war, marriage and family life. Although elements of meditational mysticism is evident in much of his work – for example, in the Passion song, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden; O head covered in blood and wounds – Gerhardt kept such medieval influences within the bounds of Lutheran orthodoxy. Similarly, images of nature and symbols based in nature are rife in his hymns, but, tempered through his deeply held Lutheran beliefs, in Gerhardt the mystical elements simply open up a way for the believer (rather than the faith community) to experience personal piety and an individual relationship with God. They thus mark a turning point in Lutheranism and have become less confessional – compare the 16th-century hymns of Martin Luther – and more devotional in character.

His hymns include:

Befiehl du deine Wege; Commit your way

O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden; O head covered in blood and wounds

Further Reading

Please note that there is very little recent scholarship on Gerhardt in English. Readers and students should therefore note the following:

Alain Bideau, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676): Pasteur et poète (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003)

Theodore Brown Hewitt, Paul Gerhardt as a Hymn Writer and his Influence on English Hymnody (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918); freely available online (extremely dated - proceed with caution)

Christian Bunners, Paul Gerhardt. Weg―Werk―Wirkung [1993-94] (Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2006-2007)

John Kelly (trans.), Paul Gerhardt’s Spiritual Songs (London: Alexander Strahan, 1867). This is a compilation of translated songs and is freely available online.

Erika A. Metzger, ‘Paul Gerhardt’, in James Hardin (ed.), German Baroque Writers, 1580-1660 (Detroit, MI: Gale, 1996), pp. 113-20

J. R. Watson, “The Reformation: England and Germany”, in J. R. Watson and Timothy Dudley-Smith (eds.), An annotated anthology of hymns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 65-92 (esp. pp. 75-79)