STORY BEHIND THE SONG: Pastor gives praise, thanks during darkest of times

Pam Griffin
Martin Rinkart

“Now thank we all our God, With heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things hath done, In whom his world rejoices;

Who from our mother's arms Hath blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, And still is ours today.”

From 1618 to 1648, Europe, and especially Germany, was devastated by famine, disease and destruction during the Thirty Years' War. In 1636 Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Germany, wrote the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” (Nun danket alle Gott), a hymn of thanksgiving still sung today.

The son of a poor coppersmith, Rinkart was born April 23, 1586, in Eilenberg, Saxony, Germany. As a child he was a member of the choir in the famous St. Thomas Church of Leipzig, Germany, where J.S. Bach later served as musical director.

After attending the Latin School at Eilenburg, Rinkart became a foundation scholar and chorister of the St. Thomas School in Leipzig in November 1601. This scholarship also let him proceed to the University of Leipzig, where he enrolled for the summer session of 1602 as a theology student. He made his way at the university through the efforts of industry and his musical gifts, and was ordained to the Lutheran Church ministry and became a precentor, director of choral services, at the church at Eiselben.

After completing his studies, Rinkart stayed in Leipzig where he applied for the position of deacon at Eilenburg. However, he was refused by the superintendent, supposedly because Rinkart was a better musician than theologian, but really because the superintendent was unwilling to have a strong-willed colleague who was a native of Eilenburg.

Instead, Rinkart took a position at the Eisleben Gymnasium in June 1610 and also served as cantor at St. Nicholas Church. A few months later, he became deacon of St. Ann’s Church in Neustadt of Eisleben, and in 1613 became pastor at Erdeborn and Lütjendorf, near Eisleben.

In 1617, at the age of 31, Rinkart became Archdeacon in his native town of Eilenburg, just as the Thirty Years’ War broke out. The residents of this walled town endured many horrors during this time, and Rinkart stood by his flock while he himself endured the hardship of quartering soldiers in his home and frequent plunderings of his meager stock of grain and household goods. He was a faithful, caring pastor who attended to the needs of the sick and the hungry during extreme circumstances.

“O may this bounteous God Through all our life be near us,

With ever joyful hearts And blessed peace to cheer us;

And keep us in his grace, And guide us when perplexed,

And free us from all ills In this world and the next.”

Eilenburg became an overcrowded refuge for those from the country districts where the Swedes had spread devastation and destruction. A steady stream of refugees poured into the city as the Swedish army surrounded it. In 1637 the plague claimed 8,000 people including the vast majority of the town council, an exorbitant number of children, clergymen from a neighboring parish, and Rinkart’s wife.

Now he had to do the work of three men, and buried 40 to 50 people a day — a total of 4,480 — but through it all he remained well. Finally, it became necessary to bury the refugees in trenches without service.

After the plague, the town was hit by a famine so extreme that “30 or 40 people might be seen fighting in the streets for a dead cat or crow.” Rinkart did his best to help and gave away everything, keeping only the barest rations for his own family. In time, he was forced to mortgage his future income to buy bread and clothes for his children.

As if that suffering were not enough, the Swedes returned and imposed a ransom of 30,000 thalers on the town. Rinkart left the safety of the city to meet with the Swedish general to plead for mercy. He was refused and returned to the town saying, “Come my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” He fell to his knees, praying with such earnestness that the Swedish general relented and lowered his demand to 2,000 florins.

Through grief, and loss, suffering and death, Rinkart always looked to his Savior, and could thank God for the blessings he still had. “Now Thank We All Our God” began as a family prayer before meals, and later was sung as a national thanksgiving at a celebration service when the Thirty Years’ War ended. With the exception of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God," it is the most widely sung hymn in Germany, sung on numerous occasions of national rejoicing.

Rinkart wrote seven dramas on the Reformation for the centenary in 1617 and of the more than 60 hymns he wrote, “Now Thank We All Our God” is his best known. It is a testament to his faith that, after such misery, he was able to write a hymn of abiding trust and gratitude toward God. He died in December 1649 in the place he loved most — Eilenburg.

“All praise and thanks to God The Father now be given,

The Son, and him who reigns, With them in highest heaven,

The one eternal God, Whom earth and heaven adore;

For thus it was, is now, And shall be evermore.”