Nun danket alle Gott

translated as
Now thank we all our God

with
NUN DANKET ALLE GOTT
& GRACIAS

Text: Origins. Sometimes the deepest expressions of gratitude are borne out of the deepest hardships. Such is the case with Martin Rinkart’s most famous hymn, “Nun danket alle Gott.” Historian James Mearns aptly summarized Rinkart’s personal challenges:

The greater part of Rinkart’s professional life was passed amid the horrors of the Thirty Years War [1618-1648]. Eilenburg, being a walled town, became a refuge for fugitives from all around, and being so overcrowded, not unnaturally suffered from pestilence and famine. During the great pestilence of 1637, the Superintendent went away for change of air, and could not be persuaded to return; and on Aug. 7 Rinkart had to officiate at the funerals of two of the town clergy and two who had to leave their livings in the country. Rinkart thus for some time was the only clergyman in the place, and often read the service over some 40 to 50 persons a day, and in all over about 4,480. At last the refugees had to be buried in trenches without service, and during the whole epidemic some 8,000 persons died, including Rinkart’s first wife, who d. May 8, 1637. … Immediately thereafter came a most severe famine, during which Rinkart’s resources were strained to the uttermost to help his people.[1]

“Nun danket alle Gott” was first printed in Jesu Hertz-Büchlein (Leipzig, 1636), without music, in three stanzas of eight lines (Fig. 1). Granted, his hymn of thanksgiving was published before the worst of these circumstances, but these were the challenging times in which he lived. In the preface to his Die Meisnische Thränen-Saat (Leipzig, 1637 | image), he indicated that the songs in his Hertz-Büchlein had been completed six or seven years previously, so this hymn may have been composed closer to 1630, but still in the midst of ongoing warfare. Some reports have circulated of a manuscript, once held by a descendant of Rinkart and now lost, which dated the hymn 24 June 1630.


 

Fig. 1. Martin Rinkart, Jesu Hertz-Büchlein (Leipzig, 1636).

 

Tune 1. Rinkart’s hymn was set to music by Johann Crüger (1598–1662) in the 3rd edition of his Praxis Pietatis Melica (Berlin, 1648; 1653 ed. shown at Fig. 2), melody and bass. This tune has endured as the most recognizable setting for this text, in both German and English alike. It has been set by composers such as J.S. Bach, in his Cantata BWV 192 (1730), and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, in his Lobgesang, op. 52, no. 8 (1840).


Fig. 2. Johann Crüger, Praxis Pietatis Melica (Berlin, 1653).


Translation. The most widely accepted translation of this hymn is “Now thank we all our God” by Catherine Winkworth (1827–1878). Her version was first printed in Lyra Germanica, 2nd Series: The Christian Life (London, 1858 | Fig. 3), text only.


 

Fig. 3. Lyra Germanica, 2nd series (London, 1858).

 

Winkworth’s translation was also included in The Chorale Book for England (London, 1863 | Fig. 4), set to Crüger’s tune.

 

Fig. 4. The Chorale Book for England, with Supplement (London, 1865).

 

Tune 2. This hymn, in addition to being frequently set to Crüger’s tune, is also sometimes set to GRACIAS, a tune by Geoffrey Beaumont (1903–1970), an Anglican chaplain and curate, first published in his 20th Century Folk Mass (London: Josef Weinberger, 1956), and again in Three Hymn Tunes from 20th Century Folk Mass (London: W. Paxton, 1957 | Fig. 5), and recorded on the LP 20th Century Folk Mass, with Frank Weir and The Peter Knight Singers (Fiesta Record Company, FLPS 25000, 1957).

 

Fig. 5. Geoffrey Beaumont, Three Hymn Tunes from 20th Century Folk Mass (London: W. Paxton, 1957), excerpt.

 

Analysis. The first two stanzas of this hymn are based on a passage from the Apocrypha, in Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 50:22-24 —

And now bless the God of all,
    who in every way does great things;
who exalts our days from birth,
    and deals with us according to his mercy.
May he give us gladness of heart,
    and grant that peace may be in our days in Israel,
    as in the days of old.
May he entrust to us his mercy!
    And let him deliver us in our days! (RSV)

The final stanza is a trinitarian doxology. Catherine Winkworth, in her own assessment of the hymn, was enamored by Rinkart’s personal circumstances, although it is worth noting that she thought the hymn was written in 1644, after the great epidemic:

So great were Rinkart’s own losses and charities that he had the utmost difficulty in finding bread and clothes for his children, and was forced to mortgage his future income for several years. Yet how little his spirit was broken by all these calamities is shown by this hymn and others that he wrote; some indeed speaking of his country’s sorrows, but all breathing the same spirit of unbounded trust and readiness to give thanks.[2]

Legacy. The hymn was reportedly sung to celebrate the end of the Thirty Years War, the Peace of Westphalia, on 10 Dec. 1648. In the decades that followed, the hymn achieved national status. In 1869, Winkworth said the hymn “has become the popular ‘Te Deum’ of Germany, and is always chosen on any great public occasion to express the united gratitude and praise of the people.”[3] James Mearns, in 1892, was confident in saying it “is now to be found in every German hymnbook.”[4] In the time since Winkworth’s fine English translation, it has also found a place in nearly every major English and American hymnal, an ongoing testament to the quality of the text and tune, and to the power of giving thanks. Hymnologist Erik Routley said of it, “It has gained and kept its popularity because of its brevity, its simplicity, its commonplace and upretentious celebration of that brightest of Christian graces: gratitude.”[5]

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
5 November 2018


Footnotes:

  1. James Mearns, “Martin Rinkart,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 962: Google Books

  2. Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany (London, 1869), p. 183: Archive.org

  3. Catherine Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany (London, 1869), p. 181: Archive.org

  4. James Mearns, “Martin Rinkart,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 963: Google Books

  5. Erik Routley, Hymns and the Faith (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1956), p. 31.

Related Resources:

Johannes Zahn, Die Melodien der deutschen evangelischen Kirchenlieder, vol. 3 (1890), no. 5142; vol. 6 (1893), no. 558.

Frank Colquhoun, “Now thank we all our God,” Hymns that Live (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), pp. 228-234.

Robin Leaver & Carl Schalk, “Now thank we all our God,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), nos. 396-397.

Paul Westermeyer, “Now thank we all our God,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 724-725.

“Nun danket alle Gott,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/nun_danket_alle_gott

“Now thank we all our God,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/now_thank_we_all_our_god

J.R. Watson, “Nun danket alle Gott,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/n/nun-danket-alle-gott

J.R. Watson, “Now thank we all our God,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/n/now-thank-we-all-our-god