Rose: Hymns – A Mighty Fortress

Martin Luther was born to Hans, a miner and later town councilor, and Margarethe Lindermann, on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, which was at that time a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Among his siblings, Luther’s father sought to have him become a lawyer and thus sent him to schools that focused on the trivium as well as doctrine. By 1501, he moved to the University of Erfurt, earning a baccalaureate in a year and the master’s in three. Then he moved on to study law but was struck by an event that changed his course. In 1505, Luther was nearly hit by lightning while traveling through a thunderstorm. He cried out to St. Anne, saying he would become a monk if he lived.

Thus, young Martin became an Augustinian monk in the summer of 1505, much to the dismay of his father. To say that Luther was a devoted monk may prove an understatement. Luther once wrote that if he had continued as he was, it would have killed him. And indeed, Luther spent nearly all of his time in confession, terrified at missing even one sin, as well as fasting and praying. He wrote later that he made Christ the “jailer and hangman of [his] poor soul.” Luther was ordained in 1507, and from then until 1510, his theological studies brought him back and forth between the University of Erfurt and the Wittenberg Monastery. He gained a doctorate in 1512 and joined the faculty of Wittenburg that same year. Three years later, he received an additional position to oversee eleven monasteries in Saxony and Thuringia. 

But all was not well in Luther’s world. Following his promotion, Fr. Johann Tetzel was sent by Pope Leo X to collect indulgences for the remodeling of St. Peter’s Basilica. It is to Tetzel the rhyme, “As soon as he coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” is attributed. This led to what is perhaps the best-remembered event of Luther’s life. While the nailing to the door of All Saints’ Church on the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517 may or may not have happened, Luther did write his “Disputation,” or the Ninety-five Theses, and sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz. The indulgences were not the only qualms Luther had with the Roman Catholic Church, which included justification and the greed of the Pope, but the indulgences were the tipping point.

While Luther did not intend a split from the church but rather wanted to open a discussion for reform, hence the Reformation, Rome saw things differently. But thanks to the printing press, Luther’s Theses were quickly and widely spread throughout not only Germany but Europe. For the next three years, he was attacked by envoys from Rome.

By June of 1520, the Pope made his position clear that if Luther did not recant, he would be excommunicated, which is what happened the following January. In April, Luther was called to the Diet of Worms, presided by Emperor Charles the V, where Luther was called a heretic and an outlaw. This is where he gave his “Here I stand” speech. The division and slaughter between the Roman Catholic Church and Lutherans would continue until the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, though many other Protestants denominations would not see peace for another century or more after. 

It was only due to the protection of Price Frederick III that Luther had not been killed. After the Diet, Luther “disappeared” to Wartburg Castle for a year by the Prince, where he translated the New Testament into the vernacular. This influenced William Tyndale. The Old Testament was completed twelve years later. After he returned to Wittenburg, he aided a group of nuns in escaping a convent in 1523. In June of 1525, he married one of those nuns, Katharina von Bora, and they had six children. 

A year after their marriage, Luther began organizing a new church, which, though it had not been his original intent, seemed inevitable. Not only did Luther write new catechisms, a particular help for fathers in teaching their households and pastors who knew little of doctrine, he also setting up newer settings of worship with an emphasis on music. Even so, Luther tried not to change too much from what most people were used to, even to the point that other reformers saw barely any change at all. While Luther was highly influential in composing and furthering what became the doctrine’s of the Lutheran Church, it was his friend and partner, Phillip Melanchthon, who wrote the vast majority of the works that now compose the Book of Concord

Luther became very ill physically towards the end of his life as well as ill-tempered. Yet this further demonstrates that Luther, like the rest of us, is a sinner saved by grace. In 1545, he returned to Mansfield to aid his siblings in dealing with their father’s mine. These dealings continued until February of the following year. He preached one final sermon in Eisleben on February 15, 1546 and died three days later. He was buried at All Saints’ Church at Wittenburg where his friend Melanchthon would follow him a few years later. 

Besides doctrinal texts, Luther was most influential in shaping the way hymns were crafted and sung for service. He saw them as a way to teach Scripture and doctrine, sung in a way that was familiar and quick to memorize. Luther once said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” More than a century after Luther’s death, Johann Sebastian Bach would take much of Luther’s chorales and recreate them in his own music.

The best-loved of Luther’s hymns was ” Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” or “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” written between 1527-1529. This piece has been translated over 80 times into English, not to mention dozens of other languages, though knowing the German reveals a richer meaning in the text. The original tune, also composed by Luther, is more rhythmic than the one most commonly sung today. This hymn, based on Psalm 46, is about how God is our stronghold, our place of refuge, our defense against the devil’s schemes, and how Christ is our savior and protector.

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
does seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.

The beginning of this hymn sets the tone for the rest of the verses and most strongly reflects Psalm 46. In fact, throughout the Psalms, God is likened to a fortress, a strong tower, a rock, unmovable, the one in whom our trust relies (Psa. 18:2, 31, 46:1, Isa. 26:3-4). The hymn, like the psalm, continues by pointing out that no matter what earthly troubles come against us, of which there will be many, God will always be our helper (Psa. 46:2-3, Matt. 28:20). But not only will we encounter earthly or “mortal” troubles but also spiritual ones. For the Adversary is at work against us, seeking to be our undoing, and it is God who must be our shield against him (Psa. 91:1-10, 94:17-19, Eph. 6:10-18, 1 Pet. 5:6-11).   

Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right Man on our side,
the Man of God’s own choosing.
You ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name,
from age to age the same;
and he must win the battle.

This verse continues where the second left off. It is not in ourselves that we rely for our strength against the wiles of the devil and of this world. We do that no more than we rely on ourselves to be saved. No, instead we rely on Christ and His strength, whom God chose to redeem us and to keep us until the last day (Isa. 40:28-31, Phil. 3:7-11, Heb. 2:14-18 1 Pet. 1:18-21, Jud. 1:20-21). Therefore, when we fight these spiritual battles while on earth, we fight with our steadfast Savior who will win this battle – who has already  defeated death –  and will lead us to life everlasting (Jhn. 6:47, Rom. 6:23, Gal. 6:8).   

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

Furthermore, we have another reason to not fear the devil and evil in this world: God’s truth will triumph in the end. Does that mean we will never face hardship, trials, persecution? By no means! Yet even in these circumstances, we do not fear, tremble, or fall, for God will sustain us (Psa. 71:20, Jas. 1:2-8, 2 Cor. 12:10, Mar. 10:29-31). Again, His truth will be spread in and through us; His promises will not fail (2 Cor. 4, Rom. 8:35-39). We will live now or live eternally with Christ, and that old foe will not prevail. Christ has already defeated sin, death, and the devil. If this is the case, what do we have to fear even mortal men (Heb. 13:5-8, 1 Jhn. 4:4)? “His doom is sure” and Christ will be victorious (1Cor. 15:50-58). 

That Word above all earthly powers
no thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go,
this mortal life also;
the body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still;
his kingdom is forever!

Christ, of course, is that Word which shall fell the devil. He is also above all powers, thus He gave us His Word as a defense (Col. 1:16, Eph. 6:17). Additionally, the Spirit also gave us faith as a shield against all attacks (Eph. 6:16). Moreover, the Spirit is also with us along with all other things the Lord has promised to us (2 Tim. 1:14). So we do not rely on earthly treasures or mortal men but keep the faith as we wait for God’s kingdom (Mat. 6:21). Those things will fade away. Thus, we have nothing to fear with God as our stronghold, the Spirit remaining in us, and Christ keeping us in Him. Christ, His truth, and His kingdom will remain forever (Psa. 45:6, 46:10, Luk. 1:33, Heb. 1:8-9Psa. 45:6, 46:10, Luk. 1:33, Heb. 1:8-9).

Blessings to you and yours,

~ Rose


Works Referenced

“A Mighty Fortress.”

Bruce Shelley. Church History in Plain Language. 247-57. 

“EIN FESTE BURG.”

“Martin Luther.”

“Martin Luther: German Religious Leader.”

“Ninety-five Theses.”

“Peace of Augsburg.”

Robert Morgan. Then Sings my Soul. 15.

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