776

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Scripture References

Further Reflections on Scripture References

Stanzas 1-3 of the original text were inspired by Psalm 46; stanza 4 arose directly from Luther's persecution experience. The text expresses trust in God's protection amidst the battle that Christians wage against the devil. "Earthly powers" in stanza four undoubtedly referred to the Roman Catholic authorities of Luther's day, but modern Christians may identity other "powers" that oppose the rule of Christ. The closing line of the text provides much comfort: "God's truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever!"
 
Bert Polman, Psalter Hymnal Handbook

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

The Christology of the song, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is carefully based on the content of the Apostles’ Creed, and the firmness of the convictions here echo the words of Belgic Confession, Article 20, that God gave “his Son to die, by a most perfect love, and [raised] him to life for our justification, in order that by him we might have immortality and eternal life.” “When [his] benefits are made ours, they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins…(Additionally,) the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him” (Belgic Confession, Article 22).
776

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Additional Prayers

A Prayer of Concession
O God, we try so hard to secure ourselves. We wire our houses, lock our cars, change our passwords. We insure our lives, insure our health, insure our possessions. We invest in securities. We protect our children. But then a report comes back from a pathology lab and we know that life itself has never been in our own hands. O God, mighty God, everlasting God, you are our fortress. You alone are our fortress, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
— Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.
776

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Tune Information

Name
EIN FESTE BURG
Key
C Major
Meter
8.7.8.7.6.6.6.6.7

Recordings

776

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Hymn Story/Background

This hymn by Martin Luther became one of the great “battle cry” songs of the Protestant Reformation, but it is much loved today by both Protestants and Roman Catholics for its conviction that “God’s truth abides” against all powers of evil. Luther originally composed the tune in lively rhythms, but the isorhythmic setting (in equal quarter notes, with Johann S. Bach’s interesting harmony) has gained popularity.
 
This English translation of Luther's German text is by Frederick H. Hedge; it was published in Furness's Gems of German Verse (1852) and in Hymns for the Church of Christ (1853), a hymnal edited by Hedge and Frederick Huntington. Hedge's translation, which closely follows Luther's words, is the one usually found in North American hymnals.
 
Stanzas 1-3 of the original text were inspired by Psalm 46; stanza 4 arose directly from Luther's persecution experience. The text expresses trust in God's protection amidst the battle that Christians wage against the devil. "Earthly powers" in stanza four undoubtedly referred to the Roman Catholic authorities of Luther's day, but modern Christians may identity other "powers" that oppose the rule of Christ. The closing line of the text provides much comfort: "God's truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever!"
 
The original rhythms of EIN FESTE BURG had already reached their familiar isorhythmic (all equal rhythms) shape by the time of Johann S. Bach in the eighteenth century. The harmonization is taken from his Cantata 80. Many organ and choral works are based on this chorale, including Felix Mendelssohn in his Symphony and Giacomo Meyerbeer in his opera Les Huguenots.
 
Sing in harmony on stanzas 2 and 3 and in unison on stanzas 1 and 4. Support the singing with strong accompaniment on the organ and/or with use of a brass ensemble.
— Bert Polman

Author Information

Frederick H. Hedge (b. Cambridge, MA, 1805; d. Cambridge, 1890) was a precocious child who read Latin and Greek classics at an early age. Between the ages of twelve and sixteen he was in Germany, where he studied German literature. Educated at Harvard University and Divinity School, he became a Unitarian minister in 1829. Hedge served congregations in Maine, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, and taught church history at Harvard Divinity School (1857-1876) and German literature at Harvard University (1872-1884). A respected transcendentalist and a famous German scholar, he published the monumental Prose Writers of Germany 0848). His original hymns and translations were published in Hymns for the Church of Christ (1853), which he compiled with F. Dan Huntington. He is remembered primarily for his translation of Luther's famous hymn.
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Eisenach, Germany, 1685; d. Leipzig, Germany, 1750) came from a family of musicians. He learned to play violin, organ, and harpsichord from his father and his older brother, Johann Christoph. Bach's early career developed in Arnstadt and Muhlhausen, particularly at the court of Duke Wilhelm Ernst in Weimar. During this period he composed cantatas and most of his large organ works. In 1717 Bach became director of music for Prince Leopold in Anhalt-Cathen, for whom he composed much of his instrumental music-orchestral suites and concertos as well as The Well-Tempered Clavier. In 1723 he was appointed cantor of the Thomas Schule at Leipzig and director at St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches and at the University of Leipzig. During that time he wrote his large choral works, 165 cantatas, and more compositions for organ and harpsichord. Although Bach's contribution to church music was immense and his stature as the finest composer of the Baroque era unparal­leled, he composed no hymn tunes for congregational use. He did, however, harmo­nize many German chorales, which he used extensively in his cantatas, oratorios, and organ works. These harmonizations were published posthumously by his son Carl Phillip Emmanuel as 371 Vierstimmige Choralgesiinge.
— Bert Polman

Author and Composer Information

The influence of Martin Luther (b. 1483; d. 1546) was monumental in biblical studies, theology, and the course of church history, but his influence was equally important in the worship and music of the church. He was educated at Magdeburg, Eisenach, and Erfurt and intended to enter the legal profession. But at the age of twenty-two he decided to become a monk and entered the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. There he under­went the required rigors of spiritual training and was ordained in 1507. In 1510 he was commissioned to go to Rome to discuss a controversy within the Augustinian order. While in Rome, Luther was shocked by the worldliness and commercialism of the Italian clergy and the ostentation of the papacy.
 
After his return to Germany, Luther was appointed professor of sacred Scriptures at the University of Wittenberg, a position he retained until his death. In his lectures and preaching Luther began to teach the biblical and Augustinian doctrines of salvation by grace through faith in Christ, and he began to urge reforms of the abuses in the church. This call for reform came to a head when the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel appeared selling indulgences. Luther protested the whole system of salvation as taught by the church and published his "Ninety-five Theses" in 1517. This challenge resulted in a condemnation from Rome, and Luther found himself on a collision course with the church. He devoted the rest of his life to working out the implications of his stance and to assuming the leadership of the Protestant Reformation. Luther embodied his teachings in sermons, lectures, debates, table conversations, devotions, letters, and songs. His collected works number over fifty volumes (in English translation) not including one of his greatest contributions—the translation of the Bible into German.
 
Luther also became involved in the reformation of the worship of the church. It is generally recognized that in his liturgy Luther remained much closer to the Roman Catholic Church than did Calvin. However, both his Latin Mass ("Formula missae," 1523) and German Mass ("Deutscher messe," 1526) incorporated the basic teachings of the Reformation and became the model of worship for later Lutheran (and other) churches. Luther also promoted congregational singing and wrote thirty-five hymns, many based on the psalms and others on early hymns. Scholars are not completely certain how many hymn tunes he composed himself or arranged from other sources, but more are attributed to Luther now than in the past. Luther was a fine singer and lute player, and his love of music influenced the Lutheran tradition. In cooperation with a number of associates, Luther supervised the compilation of various hymnals, ranging from the Achtliederbuch (1524) to Babst's Geystliche Lieder (1545).
— Bert Polman

Song Notes

This hymn is often referred to as “the battle hymn” of the Reformation. Many stories have been relayed about its use. Albert Bailey writes, “It was, as Heine said, the Marseillaise of the Reformation…It was sung in the streets…It was sung by poor Protestant emigrees on their way to exile, and by martyrs at their death…Gustavus Adolphus ordered it sung by his army before the battle of Leipzig in 1631…Again it was the battle hymn of his army at Lutzen in 1632…It has had a part in countless celebrations commemorating the men and events of the Reformation; and its first line is engraved on the base of Luther’s monument at Wittenberg…An imperishable hymn! Not polished and artistically wrought but rugged and strong like Luther himself, whose very words seem like deeds” (The Gospel in Hymns, 316). As you can see, this is a hymn close to the hearts of Protestants and Lutherans, a source of assurance in times of duress and persecution. The text is not restricted, however, to times of actual physical battles. In any time of need, when we do battle with the forces of evil, God is our fortress to hide us and protect us, and the Word that endures forever will fight for us.
— Laura de Jong
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