Paul Gerhardt is considered by many as the most gifted and popular hymnwriter of the Lutheran church, was born on March 12, 1607, in Gräfenhainichen, a small village a few miles south of Wittenberg, Germany. His father, Christian Gerhardt, was mayor of the town but died when Paul was very young. Dorothea nee Starke, his mother, was a Lutheran pastor’s daughter and a pastor’s granddaughter from Eilenburg. Little is known of his many brothers and sisters. Paul spent the first 15 years of his life in his hometown, but from 1622 to 1627 went to the elector’s school at Grimma, an institution noted for its pious atmosphere and stern discipline. The school’s aim was to instill in the pupils “Gottesfurcht und gute Sitte” (“the fear of God and good manners or morals”).
From 1628 until 1634 Gerhardt studied theology at the University of Wittenberg, where he was strongly influenced by Martin Opitz and August Buchner, both esteemed members of the faculty, and by Paul Röber and Jacob Martini, two staunch defenders of Lutheranism. In 1637, amid the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, he witnessed his own home, four hundred buildings, and the church burned to ashes by the Swedish army. This was done in spite of the fact that the towns people had raised the three thousand gulden the enemy had demanded. Later that summer, the plague killed over three hundred towns people. He apparently was in Wittenberg until 1642 or 1643, poised and ready for the ministry, but no assignment came. For about eight or nine years he lived in Berlin, where he was a tutor in the home of Andreas Barthold, a Berlin attorney, whose daughter Anna Maria he married in 1655, when he was 48 years old. There he began his hymnwriting career and became friends with Johann Crüger, who was the first to bring Gerhardt’s hymns into common use by publishing 18 of them in his Praxis pietatis melica of 1644.
Finally, at age 45, following his ordination at which he pledged his undying support of the Lutheran Book of Concord, he received his first position in the ministry as head pastor at Mittenwalde, near Berlin. After six years, he was called in 1657 as third assistant at St. Nicholaskirche in Berlin, where he became a very popular and influential preacher, universally honored and beloved. He came to know Johann Georg Ebeling, who brought out the first edition of Gerhardt’s hymns entitled Pauli Gerhardi Geistliche Andachten (1667). In 1666 he was deposed, however, because of a controversy with Emperor Frederick William I, a Calvinist, and for refusing to sign a document promising that all clergymen would abstain from any references in their sermons to doctrinal differences between the Lutherans and Calvinists.
The next three years Gerhardt later described as his “Berlin martyrdom” and “a small Berlin affliction.” He was in conflict with the authorities over doctrinal issues but, as he later wrote, was “willingand ready to seal with my blood the evangelical truth, and, like my namesake, St. Paul, to offer my neck to the sword.” He was without any steady employment, became very poor, and survived only through charitable contributions he received from Lutheran laypeople who sympathized with his cause and plight. Domestic sorrow also befell him when, having already lost four children, his wife died after a long illness in 1668, leaving him with only one son, Paul Friedrich, age 6. At last, in 1669 he became archdeacon at Lübben-on-the-Spree, in Saxe-Merseburg (1669–1676). There he labored for seven years among a rude, unsympathetic people and died on June 7, 1676.
Gerhardt was essentially a “Gelegenheitsdichter,” a poet of special occasions, choosing for his themes the various problems of life and such events as would present themselves to an earnest pastor devoted to the flock under his care, and through his hymns providing consolation and comfort to his people. His approximately 125 hymns, many of them very long, reflect the transition from objective to more subjective, individualistic, and introspective texts. Catherine Winkworth wrote of him,
As a poet he undoubtedly holds the highest place among the hymn-writers of Germany. His hymns seem to be the spontaneous outpouring of a heart that overflows with love, trust and praise. His language is simple and pure. If it has sometimes a touch of homeliness, it has novulgarism; and at times it rises to a beauty and grace which always give the impression of being unstudied, yet could hardly have been improved by art. His tenderness and fervor never degenerate into sentimentality, nor his penitence and sorrow into morbid despondency.
Over 14 books and numerous articles have been written about Gerhardt’s life and his contributions to hymnody. His difficult and troubled life was aptly described by an inscription on his portrait in the church at Lübben, which reads, “Theologus in cribro Satanae versatus” (“a theologian strained in the sieve of Satan”).