Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608) was a pastor in Germany during the Great Plague, which took the lives of 1,300 of his parishioners during a sixth-month period. In addition to his heroic pastoral ministry during that time of stress and sorrow, he wrote the texts for “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” and “O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright,” known, respectively, as the king and queen of the Lutheran chorales. Johann Heermann (1585–1647), also a German pastor, suffered from poor health as well as from the ravages of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). His hymn texts are noted for their tenderness and depth of feeling. Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676) was another Lutheran pastor who endured the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. By 1668 he lost his pastoral position in Berlin (for refusing to compromise his Lutheran convictions), and endured the death of four of his five children and his wife. He nevertheless managed to write 133 hymns, all of which reflect his firm faith. Along with Martin Luther he is regarded as one of Lutheranism’s finest hymn writers.
If I started writing about the significance of these three men in Lutheran hymnody, I would never finish. So I’ll just share a few links and comments about each of them.
The King: Wake, Awake
There is hardly anything better than Bach’s cantata (BWV 140) on this hymn, especially the choral settings of the 2nd and 3rd stanzas. Get it on Amazon. I especially love this brass setting of the final choral.
When I was a kid, I used to page through the hymnal looking for hymns written by “Johann”s. It was a bonus to find hymns with both text and tune by someone who shared my name (especially because I didn’t know any real/living people who shared my name).
Feed Your Children God Most Holy – we sing this regularly at meals in our home, especially when the whole family is together or when we have guests in our home.
Here is a German documentary on Gerhardt life, work, and significance. I suspect, though, that many of the people interviewed, who appreciate Gerhardt’s hymnody and poetry, totally miss the main and central point of Gerhardt’s hymns—Jesus.
Lobet den Herren – I have found this simply enchanting. I have sometimes said that it would have been worth learning German just to be able to sing Paul Gerhardt hymns.