Hymn Story: A Mighty Fortress is Our God

A Mighty Fortress is Our God was written by Martin Luther.  It has been proclaimed “The one hymn that most symbolizes the Protestant Reformation.”

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic monk who believed the Church of Rome was corrupt. He posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church on October 31, 1517.

In 1521, Luther broke with Rome and was subsequently recognized as the leader of the German Reformation.

Carlton R. Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal, summarized Luther’s contribution to hymnody.  He ““wrote several original hymns and melodies, revised many Latin hymns to German texts set to adaptations of plainsong and folk melodies, and encouraged the composition of new texts and rhythmic hymn melodies. His thirty-seven hymns and paraphrase are cast in simple, plain, and sometimes rough phrases and striking metaphors, qualities that are for the most part lost in English translations.”

It is unknown when the hymn was written but believed to have been written around 1527.

Verse 2

There are 5 theories regarding the inspiration of this hymn:

1. Luther and his companions sung as the entered the Diet of Worms on April 16, 1521 {Heinrich Heine belief}

2. Luther wrote as a tribute to his friend Leonhard Kaiser who was executed on August 16, 1527  {K. F. T. Schneider belief}

3. German Lutheran princes sung as the entered the Augsburg Confession in 1530 {Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné belief}

4. Composed in connection of the 1529 Diet of Speyer where the German Lutheran princes lodged their protest to the Holy Roman Emperor

5.  “began as a martial song to inspire soldiers against the Ottoman forces” during the Ottoman wars in Europe  {John M. Merriman belief}

The hymn is based on Psalm 46 and first appeared in print in the 1529 Form und ordnung Gaystlicher Gesang und Psalmen. 

verse 3

Louis Benson wrote in Studies of Familiar Hymns {1903} “It was … the Marseillaise of the Reformation. It was sung at Augsburg during the Diet, and in all the churches of Saxony, often against the protest of the priest. It was sung in the streets; and, so heard, comforted the hearts of Melanchthon, Jonas, and Cruciger, as they entered Weimar, when banished from Wittenberg in 1547. It was sung by poor Protestant emigrants on their way into exile, and by martyrs at their death. It is woven into the web of the history of Reformation times, and it became the true national hymn of Protestant Germany.”

The original tune reflected a Renaissance folk style of Luther’s day. However, it is unknown the specific song this tune was lively tune was taken from or if Luther wrote the tune himself.

The hymn became closely associated with Luther himself. Some historians believe it embodies Luther’s “bold, confident, defiant in the face of opposition ” characteristics.

The hymn is considered the “true National hymn of Germany”.

A Mighty Fortress is Our God was sung on the battlefield of Leipzig, during the Thirty Years’ War, in 1631.

The first English version was translated by Miles Coverdale and published in the 1535 Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes.

Thomas Carlyle

In 1831, Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish Calvinist, translated Luther’s hymn. However, this is not the version we know today.

In 1853, Frederick Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister, provided the translation to this hymn which appears in most hymnals today.

Each of these translations have different lyrics, all of which maintain the heart of the song as God is our defense and tower or safe stronghold.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is inscribed on the base of Luther’s tomb. “It is said to be the greatest hymn of the greatest man in the greatest period in German history.”

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