A safe stronghold
Martin Luther’s “Ein Fest Burg” begins this week of hymns of protest and encouragement. It wasn’t written as a liturgical hymn to be sung in church, but rather as a song of encouragement in the struggles Luther was having with the Catholic Church. Luther (1483-1546) had been an Augustinian monk, but growing theological concerns and anger at the corruption of the Church had caused him to protest against its abuses. The reactions were violent, and his break from the Church was bitter. A Safe Stronghold was a hymn of defiance, probably written before the Diet (meeting) of Speyer, when a number of German princes who supported him protested to the Emperor at the suppression of religious liberty (which is why Luther’s movement was known as Protestant).
The song became a rallying cry for Protestants and an anthem of German nationalism too. An early translation into English by Miles Coverdale in 1538 never gained popularity, and there have been at least 47 attempts at translating it since. The translation most commonly sung in England is by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who said of the hymn “There is something in it like the sound of Alpine avalanches or the first murmur of earthquakes; in the very vastness of which dissonance a higher unison is revealed to us.”
The tune was also written by Luther,who probably intended it to be sung at a lively pace. English congregations have a tendency to make rather heavy weather of it and turn it into a dirge! It was incorporated into the 4th movement of Mendelssohn's 5th Symphony, "The Reformation Symphony", in which the bass notes are supplied by a contrabassoon and a serpent, imitating the organ pedals. There is a recording here. https://youtu.be/AqdcnNYROLo
A safe stronghold our God is still,
a trusty shield and weapon;
he'll keep us clear from all the ill
that hath us now o'ertaken.
The ancient prince of hell
hath risen with purpose fell;
strong mail of craft and power
he weareth in this hour;
on earth is not his fellow.
With force of arms we nothing can,
full soon were we down-ridden;
but for us fights the proper Man
whom God himself hath bidden.
Ask ye who is this same?
Christ Jesus is his name,
the Lord Sabaoth's Son;
he, and no other one,
shall conquer in the battle.
- · Have you ever felt under attack? Would this hymn have helped remind you of God’s presence with you? What are the dangers of a hymn like this?