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In religion, as in other things, the pendulum often swings from one extreme to the other. Scarcely had the Pietistic movement run its course before the rationalistic tendencies which had thrown religious thought into confusion in France and England began to make their appearance in Germany. Rationalism was an attempt to subject all revealed religion to the test and judgment of the human reason. That which seemed to contradict reason was rejected as superstitious and untrue.

Strangely enough, the University of Halle, which had been the citadel of Pietism, became the stronghold of Rationalism in Germany. Christian Wolff and Johann Semler, noted philosophers of Halle, were leaders in the movement. It was not their purpose to establish a new religion of reason, but to “purge” Christianity of the things that seemed unreasonable. But the results of the movement were devastating. The miracles of the Bible that could not be explained by natural causes were rejected as “fables.” Christ was robbed of His glory as a divine Saviour and was regarded only as a teacher of morals. Religion became merely the knowledge of God and the pursuit of virtue. What remained of Christianity was a mere shadow: a hypothesis concerning God and immortality, and a teaching of external morality, the attainment of which was largely a matter of man’s own efforts.

Rationalism cast its blight over the hymnody of all Europe, 136 but particularly in Germany. It was the golden age of German literature, but such geniuses as Goethe, Schiller, Lessing and Wieland were not filled with the Christian zeal of earlier poets, and they wrote no hymns. Most of the hymns that were produced were so tinged with the spirit of the “new theology” that they contained no elements of vitality to give them permanent value.

The Rationalists were not satisfied with criticizing the Bible; they also sought to “purge” the hymn-books. The old hymns of Luther, Heermann, Selnecker, and Gerhardt were so completely altered that a noted German hymnologist, Albert Knapp, was moved to observe ironically: “The old hymns were subjected to a kind of transmigration of soul by which their spirits, after having lost their own personality, entered into other bodies.”

Only a few writers, such as Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Balthasar Münter, Christian Gellert and Matthias Claudius, wrote hymns of any abiding worth.

Klopstock, the German Milton, whose epic, “Messiah,” thrilled Germany as had no other poetic work in centuries, essayed to write a few hymns, but he soared too high. His hymns lacked simplicity of style and were too emotional and subjective to be used for public worship. Only two English translations are familiar—“Blessed are the heirs of heaven,” a funeral hymn, and “Grant us, Lord, due preparation,” a communion hymn.

Klopstock spent nearly twenty years of his life at the Danish court, having been invited there by King Fredrik V through the influence of Count von Bernstorff, who had become greatly interested in the epic, “Messiah.” The Danish monarch gave the poet an annual pension in order to assist him in completing his famous poem without being oppressed 137 by financial worries. In 1770 Klopstock returned to Hamburg, where he died in 1803.

Gellert, who was born in Hainichen, Saxony, July 4, 1715, intended to become a Lutheran pastor. After completing his theological course at the University of Leipzig, however, he found it difficult to deliver sermons without the use of a manuscript, and therefore decided to take up teaching. In 1745 he became a member of the faculty of the University of Leipzig, where he remained until his death in 1769. Among his pupils were many famous men of Germany, including Goethe and Lessing.

Gellert’s hymns, although influenced by the age in which he lived, are singular for their genuine, evangelical utterance. It is said that he never attempted to write a hymn except when he was in the proper frame of mind, and only after a season of prayer. His Easter hymn, “Jesus lives! thy terrors now,” has gained great popularity, both in England and in America. In the former country it has been sung at the funerals of some of England’s greatest churchmen. His communion hymn also breathes a spirit of true faith in Christ:

Crushed by my sin, O Lord, to Thee

I come in my affliction:

O full of pity, look on me,

Impart Thy benediction.

My sins are great, where shall I flee?

The blood of Jesus speaks for me;

For all my sins He carried.

Matthias Claudius, the author of the splendid hymn, “We plow the fields and scatter,” like Gellert, had intended to prepare himself for the Lutheran ministry. While attending the University of Jena, however, the Rationalistic 138 teachings with which he came in contact caused him to lose interest in religion, and he decided to take up journalism instead. In 1777 he became editor of a newspaper at Darmstadt, at which place he became acquainted with Goethe and a group of freethinking philosophers.

Stricken by a serious illness, Claudius began to realize something of the spiritual emptiness of the life he had been living, and in his hour of need he turned again to his childhood faith. When he had recovered, he gave up his position and removed to Wandsbeck, where he edited the “Wandsbecker Bote” in a true Christian spirit.

In the life-story of Claudius we may discern something of the reaction that was already taking place in many quarters against the deadening influence of Rationalism. Men were hungering for the old evangel of salvation, and there were evidences everywhere of the dawn of a happier day. Although Claudius’ poems were not essentially Church hymns, they were lyrics that seemed to strike anew some of the strings of Gerhardt’s harp. This is seen especially in his surpassingly beautiful ode to evening, “The silent moon is risen,” written in the same spirit and meter as Gerhardt’s famous evening hymn. The first stanza has been translated:

The silent moon is risen,

The golden star-fires glisten

In heaven serene and bright;

The forest sleeps in shadow,

And slowly off the meadow

A mist is curling, silver-white.

Another stanza, reflecting something of Claudius’ own spiritual groping and, at the same time, confessing the futility of all human efforts to attain moral perfection, reads:


We, poor, frail mortals, groping,

Half fearing and half hoping,

In darkness seek our way;

Our airy cobwebs spinning

With erring and with sinning,

Far from the mark we sadly stray.

In the lyrics of Claudius we may observe a transition from the spiritually impoverished hymn production of the rationalistic period to a new type of hymnody, giving expression to the old rugged faith in a more elegant form. Men’s souls could no longer be satisfied with the dry husks of philosophical speculation and were turning again to the Bread of God which cometh down from heaven and giveth life unto the world.

Balthasar Münter was another faithful witness to the truth in this unhappy age of widespread skepticism and unbelief. Born at Lübeck in 1735, he became Lutheran court pastor at Gotha and afterwards of the German Church of St. Peter in Copenhagen. He was the writer of about 100 hymns, many of which were set to tunes composed for them by the greatest musicians of the day. Among the best known hymns of Münter are “Lord, Thou Source of all perfection,” “Full of reverence, at Thy Word,” “Behold the man! how heavy lay,” and “Woe unto him who says, There is no God.”

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