A Church militant if there ever was one, “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe” boldly proclaims the saving arm of God, our ever-present help in times of trouble, in just four short verses. “O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe” has been found in most of our English hymnals and not a few German ones as well. And yet, despite its long history in the Lutheran Church, the origins of the hymn are a little uncertain.
Three men are traditionally credited with this hymn: Jacob Fabricius, Michael Altenburg, and Gustavus Adolphus. We will start with Fabricius as he is given credit in the LSB. Fabricius was born in the summer of 1593 to shoemakers in Koslin, which, at the time, was part of the Holy Roman Empire but is now in western Poland. He studied philosophy and eventually became a teacher in his hometown. In 1619, he married and shortly thereafter succeeded his father-in-law as a deacon at the same church. He later became the pastor of the court for the Duke of Pomerania. Skilled in speech, science, Hebrew, and sermon composition, Fabricius is possibly remembered best for his poetry. Around this time, which was during the Thirty Years War, Swedish King Gustav Adolphus came to know Fabricius.
Now, nine years before the birth of Fabricius, Michael Altenburg was born near Erfurt, where later he studied theology. He served as a cantor and a rector at a school in that same city, though in 1609 he moved away to become a pastor. Shortly thereafter, the Thirty Years War began, and Altenburg had to flee. During all this time, Altenburg was writing and composing, including a great number of concertos and chorales. Now, it is assumed that this hymn was written sometime around 1630-31, but we will return to that in a moment. Sadly, this was also the time of pestilence. In 1636, most of his flock, along with his wife and ten of his children, died. Afterward, he returned to his hometown parish where he served as a deacon and a minister until his death.
But now, back to Fabricius and Adolphus. Both these men and Altenburg are given credit for this song. It appears that during the War, Adolphus came to love this hymn. In fact, he loved it so much that he had it sung before every battle. It appears that this hymn was composed around or because of one of his greatest victories during the War. The tune, though, was based on a traditional German hymn tune from around the 1400s. Whoever composed it – likely Fabricius but perhaps Altenburg – the text was distributed for a sermon on the battlefield. It was also sung at Adolphus’ last battle, where he died, and it came to be known as his “Swan Song.” From this point, it became popular and loved in Sweden, and from there to America.
Because of his friendship with the King, Fabricius was able to travel across Germany with the King, preaching to all those he traveled past. So close were the two, Fabricius even gave Adolphus’ funeral sermon. Loved by those in both Pomerania (now Poland) and Sweden, he served both courts and eventfully became a pastor at Marienkirche in Stettin. Sadly, while preaching one last sermon, and for a funeral no less, he had a stroke and died shortly thereafter.
Yet this hymn’s story did not end there. Catherine Winkworth, to whom we English speakers owe a great deal of gratitude, found and translated the German text into English along with a great number of other German hymns, many of which we still sing today. So to whom do we give credit to this hymn? Perhaps them all. This hymn is the cumulation of the Reformation, the terror of the Thirty Years War and the Plague, and the skill of these good men. Further, Winkworth should be given much credit, for without her, this him doubtless would have been neglected by us English speakers. And what a shame! Though perhaps we do not sing it before a battle of metal and might, we do sing it before the battles we face every day against sin and the devil. So let us sing and not fear; let us sing with all the saints. God will avenge us, triumph for us. His victory will not fail! Like these faithful Christians before us, let us not fear the ancient foe. Let us raise this chorus forevermore!
O little flock, fear not the foe
Who madly seeks your overthrow;
Dread not his rage and pow’r.
And though your courage sometimes faints,
His seeming triumph o’er God’s saints
Lasts but a little hour.
This hymn begins by echoing two things: the angles’ typical greeting and that which Christ said to His disciples. “Fear not, little flock,” he tells them (Luk. 12:32). Don’t fear want, hunger, sickness, or powers. God is with you, cares for you, and will save you. Most of all, do not fear the temper. He comes at us boldly, stalking like a lion (1 Pet. 5:8). But though he puts on a good show, he is not on equal footing with God; we should not fear him. Though we are weak, God is strong. Our faith is not in our faith but in God (Eph. 6:10-20, Col. 1:18, Jam. 4:7, Psa. 2:2-5, 108:13). And so, though we struggle against sin, death, and the devil, “fear nor, little flock” for it is Christ who has the supremacy, even over the devil’s “little hour.”
Be of good cheer; your cause belongs
To Him who can avenge your wrongs;
Leave it to Him, our Lord.
Though hidden yet from mortal eyes,
His Gideon shall for you arise,
Uphold you and His Word.
Not only should we not be afraid, but we should also be of good spirit! Sorrowful as we suffer, yet we can rejoice because our cause is with the Lord. He will sustain us. Yes, we may and will suffer hardship. Though we do not fear it, we may endure want, hunger, sickness, and evil powers. The devil will tempt us! Yet we leave our faith, our trust, with the Lord. It is His to avenge. All around us, this spiritual battle wages. Sometimes we feel it in our mortal bodies, sometimes in our spirit. Sometimes not at all. Yet it is there. Further, though we do not always see God, He is constantly working around us. Yes, He is even with us and has given us His Spirit! And so we pray the Lord’s Prayer and trust in His promises (Psa. 55:22, Luk. 18:7-8). So take heart (Psa. 27:14, Jhn. 16:33, 1 Cor. 16:13). His will shall prevail, and He will sustain us (Psa. 119:116, Isa. 41:10, 42:1).
As true as God’s own Word is true,
Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew
Against us shall prevail.
Their might? A joke, a mere facade!
God is with us and we with God—
Our vict’ry cannot fail.
What a promise! We know God’s Word is true; we know His Son is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (2 Sam. 22:31, Psa. 18:30, Prov. 30:5, Jhn. 14:1-7, Rom. 3:4, Rev. 22:6). So what an assurance we have in Him that we can trust in His promises! How could we fear the devil with such hope? Sin, death, and the power of the devil have no real power over us (Luk. 10:19, Rom. 8:31-38). Our victory, our hope, our faith rests on God alone, and there is no surer foundation. So take heart! Fear not, and rejoice! The Lord is with us (2 Cor. 4:7, 2 Tim 4:18).
Amen, Lord Jesus, grant our prayer;
Great Captain, now Thine arm make bare,
Fight for us once again!
So shall Thy saints and martyrs raise
A mighty chorus to Thy praise
Certainly. Truly. It shall be so. Amen. The Lord does hear our prayer, and we ask that He would save us. And not only that, but to “make bare” His arm, or rather, let us see Him at work among us (Isa. 52:10). Open our eyes and strengthen our hands! Help us again now; help us every hour! (Psa. 46:1, 79:9, 119:41, 50) And He has shown his salvation to the ends of the earth! We fear not because God keeps His promises (2 Cor. 1:20, Eph. 3:6, 2 Tim. 1:7, Heb. 10:23, 11:1). We rejoice because He is with us. We stand secure in faith, hope, and love. So not only do we cry to our Father, trusting in Him, we also lift our praises to Him. His promises stand firm. And so, we rejoice with all the saints on earth and those who have in faith gone before us, praising Him forevermore! (Rev. 7:9-17) Amen.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“666. O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
Green, J. D. (2000). A Conductor’s Guide to the Choral-orchestral Works of J.S. Bach. United Kingdom: Scarecrow Press. p. 102.
Hunton, W. L. (1917). Favorite Hymns: Stories of the Origin, Authorship, and Use of Hymns We Love. United States: General Council Publication House. pp. 193-97.
“Michael Altenburg.” Hymnary.org.