Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott

translated as
A mighty fortress is our God
A safe stronghold our God is sure


Origins. This hymn, one of the most famous hymns in all of Christendom, was composed by the great reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546). It is based on some elements of Psalm 46 but is not a full paraphrase. In his Summaries of the Psalms, 1531–1533 (Summarien über die Psalmen), Luther offered this overview of the biblical text, some of which is reflected in his hymn:

The 46th Psalm is a psalm of thanks, sung by the people of Israel because of the mighty deeds of God. He had protected and saved the city of Jerusalem, in which was His dwelling, against all the rage and the fury of all the kings and the nations and preserved their peace against all warfare and weapons. And, in the manner of the Scriptures, the psalm calls the character of the city a little stream that shall not run dry, as opposed to the great rivers, seas, and oceans of the heathen—their great kingdoms, principalities, and domains—that shall dry up and disappear.

We, on the other hand, sing this psalm to praise God for being with us. He miraculously preserves His Word and Christendom against the gates of hell, against the rage of the devil, the rebellious spirits, the world, the flesh, sin, death. Our little spring of water is also a living fountain, while their puddles, pools, and ponds become foul, malodorous, and dry.[1]

The hymn was composed some time in or before 1529, when it appeared at least three times that year, in Joseph Klug’s Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg), which no longer exists, in a broadsheet printed in Augsburg, and in Jakob Dachser’s Form vnd Ordnung gaystlicher Gesang vnd Psalmen (Augsburg). Dachser’s version, which is text-only, was reprinted in Johannes Kulp, Luthers Leben im Spiegel seiner Lieder (Leipzig, 1935), p. 46 (Fig. 1).

 

Fig. 1. Jakob Dachser, Form vnd Ordnung gaystlicher Gesang vnd Psalmen (Augsburg, 1529), reprinted in Johannes Kulp, Luthers Leben im Spiegel seiner Lieder (Leipzig, 1935), p. 46.

 

The following year, Luther’s colleague Johann Walter (1496–1570) included the melody in a manuscript draft of some of Luther’s hymns (Fig. 2). In 1871, this manuscript was in the possession of Otto Kade, who reproduced it in Der neuaufgefundene Luther-Codex vom Jahre 1530. It is now in the possession of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum. The portion showing “Ein feste Burg” was also reproduced in Hymns Ancient & Modern Historical Edition (London, 1909), p. lxxi. This manuscript is the oldest surviving copy of Luther’s melody.

 

Fig. 2. “Ein feste Burg,” Johann Walter MS (1530), reprinted in Hymns Ancient & Modern Historical Edition (1909), p. lxxi.

 

Klug’s edition of 1529 was printed again in 1533, Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg), with the melody and all four stanzas (Fig. 3), headed with the 46th Psalm and the first five words of the psalm in Latin. In a facsimile edition edited by Konrad Ameln, published by Bärenreiter in 1954, Ameln indicated that the 1533 edition had used the same plates as the 1529 edition (p. 27). Klug’s Wittenberg connection to Luther, his reuse of the 1529 plates, and his inclusion of the complete text and melody, arguably make this the most reliable early source for Luther’s hymn, functionally equivalent to the lost 1529 edition.


Fig. 3. Joseph Klug, Geistliche Lieder auffs new gebessert (Wittenberg, 1533).


Other printings during this time period exist, but the one most significant for the study of this hymn is the final printing in Luther’s lifetime, containing Luther’s last official version, in Valentin Babst’s Geystliche Lieder (Leipzig, 1545 | Fig. 4).


Fig. 4. Valentin Babst, Geystliche Lieder (Leipzig, 1545).


In viewing the early printings of the hymn, one important aspect to note is the style of the melody. The earliest printings did not use barlines. This style of musical writing was not yet concerned with the notion of a time signature or a strict underlying beat, so the original shape of the melody had a more dance-like, freely rhythmic quality. As the concepts of meter and beat took greater hold in the world of musical composition, church musicians adapted this melody to follow suit, eventually settling on its more recognizable, march-like style, with even rhythms. This form of the melody was standardized by the time J.S. Bach (1685-1750) used it in his Cantata BWV 80 (see especially the chorale setting of movement 8). For a detailed description of the tune’s possible precursor influences and its subsequent rhythmic changes, see Robin Leaver’s essay in The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3B (1994), nos. 687-688.

Translation 1. Luther’s hymn has been translated many times into English. Many of those translations up to 1892 were detailed in John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology, pp. 322-325. For a literal, word-for-word translation into English and a corresponding analysis, see the article by Esther R. Crookshank, “A Fresh Look at Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’” (http://equip.sbts.edu/article/fresh-look-martin-luthers-mighty-fortress/).

In the United States, the predominant translation is that by Frederick H. Hedge (1805–1890), “A mighty fortress is our God,” first printed in Hymns for the Church of Christ (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1853 | Fig. 5).


Fig. 5. Hymns for the Church of Christ (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1853).


Translation 2. In Great Britain, the prevailing translation for many generations has been “A safe stronghold our God is still,” by Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), first published in Fraser’s Magazine (Jan. 1831 | Fig. 6) with a corresponding essay.


Fig. 6. Fraser’s Magazine (Jan. 1831).


James Mearns called this “the most faithful (st. iv excepted) and forcible of all the English versions” (Dictionary of Hymnology, p. 324). Regarding this hymn, Carlyle wrote:

Luther wrote this song in a time of blackest threatenings, which, however, could in no wise become a time of despair. In those tones, rugged, broken as they are, do we not recognize the accent of that summoned man (summoned not by Charles the Fifth, but by God Almighty also), who answered his friend’s warning not to enter Worms, in this wise: “Were there as many devils in Worms as there are roof-tiles, I would on;”—of him who, alone in that assemblage, before all emperors, and principalities, and powers, spoke forth these final and for ever memorable words: “It is neither safe nor prudent to do aught against conscience. Here stand I, I cannot otherwise. God assist me, Amen!”

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
15 October 2018


Footnotes:

  1. Bruce A. Cameron, Psalms with Introductions by Martin Luther (St. Louis: Concordia, 1993). For the original German, see D. Martin Luthers Werke [LW], vol. 38, p. 35.

Related Resources:

James Mearns, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 322-325: Google Books

Johannes Zahn, Die Melodien der deutschen evangelischen Kirchenlieder, vol. 4 (1891), no. 7377a-d.

Jaroslav Vajda, “Translations of ‘Ein feste Burg,’” The Hymn, vol. 34, no. 3 (July 1983), pp. 134-140: HathiTrust

Robin A. Leaver, “A mighty fortress is our God,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3B (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), nos. 687-688.

Calvin Seerveld, “Getting into Martin Luther’s Groove,” Reformed Worship (March 2010), pp. 20-21:
https://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-2010/getting-martin-luthers-groove

Paul Westermeyer, “A mighty fortress is our God,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 333-337.

Steve Perisho, “Here I fall (Roland Bainton's Here I stand on “‘A Mighty Fortress [Ein feste Burg]’ in Luther’s Hand”),” Liber Locorum Communium (23 Dec. 2014):
http://liberlocorumcommunium.blogspot.com/2014/12/here-i-fall-roland-bainton-on-mighty.html

Esther R. Crookshank, “A Fresh Look at Martin Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress,’” SBTS Equip (2017):
http://equip.sbts.edu/article/fresh-look-martin-luthers-mighty-fortress/

J.R. Watson, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/e/ein%E2%80%99-feste-burg-ist-unser-gott

J.R. Watson, “A mighty fortress is our God,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/a/a-mighty-fortress-is-our-god

J.R. Watson, “A safe stronghold our God is still,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/a/a-safe-stronghold-our-god-is-still

“Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/ein_feste_burg_ist_unser_gott

“A mighty fortress is our God,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/a_mighty_fortress_is_our_god_a_bulwark

“A safe stronghold our God is still,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/a_safe_stronghold_our_god_is_still