by Cloyce Sutton II
The “Thirty Years’ War” (1618-1648) was a devastating European conflict centered in what’s now Germany. It began as a power struggle between Protestant and Catholic forces within the Holy Roman Empire but spread among various factions throughout Europe, eventually drawing in much of Central Europe, including Spanish, Swedish, French, Dutch, Croatian, Hungarian, Prussian, and other forces. Entire regions were destroyed when marauding armies looted and plundered the villages they conquered, and in the process, consumed and destroyed land, crops, and cattle.
The human toll was staggering. It’s estimated that half the male population of Germany died, as well as 15-30% of the total population. Some areas lost between half and three-quarters of their populations. Thousands of castles and towns were destroyed, as well as tens of thousands of villages. Some towns took a century to recover from their losses; others disappeared forever. Disease aggravated all of this. Epidemics of bubonic plague, scurvy, dysentery, and typhus killed thousands, perhaps millions.
From this miasma of death, disease and destruction emerged Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a German clergyman. Rinkart spent most of his life in Eilenburg, Saxony (near modern Leipzig in eastern Germany). The son of a poor cooper, he attended the Latin School in Eilenburg. At 15, he became a scholar and chorister at St Thomas’ School in Leipzig, which enabled him to study theology at the University of Leipzig beginning in 1602. In 1610 he became master of the gymnasium in Eisleben and cantor of St Nicholas Church. In 1611 he was appointed Deacon of St Anne’s Church where he remained for two years. From 1613-1617 he was pastor at Erdeborn and Lyttichendorf (Lütjendorf), near Eisleben, after which he moved to Eilenburg, where he remained until his death in 1649.
He was appointed Archdeacon in 1617 and was one of four pastors in Eilenburg at the beginning of 1637. As a walled city, Eilenburg was frequently the destination for refugees in the region. It suffered greatly during the Thirty Years’ War, but, to make matters worse, the Plague swept through the region and city in 1637. One pastor, the superintendent, left for healthier climes. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two. His wife died in May of that year. At times, 30-40 people could be seen in the streets of the city fighting over dead cats and crows in hopes of finding food. About 8,000 people died from the plague, mostly that year, and Rinkart officiated at the funerals of over 4,000 of them, sometimes for as many as 40-50 people per day. By the end of the year, they simply dug trenches and buried people en masse with no funeral services.
In 1638, a wave of marriages swept over the town, as citizens attempted to rebuild their lives. Rinkart officiated most of these, and he himself remarried in June. Soon afterward, a severe drought struck the area, which strained Rinkart’s own resources. During this same time span, Rinkart was able to spare the city from attacks by Swiss forces in 1637 and again in 1639. Despite his extraordinary service, he was harassed in his final years by local officials who had little appreciation for all he had done.
Rinkart was a prolific hymnist and around this time, probably in 1636, he wrote what became his most well-known hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Regardless of when it was written, it dates to this general period of war and disease. Some think it began as a table prayer he used with his family at mealtime. The words are humble and thoughtful, especially in view of what we know of Rinkart and his times.
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
It’s difficult to imagine the level of hardship that a man such as Rinkart endured. It’s equally hard to read the lyrics of this simple hymn and fully grasp the contentment and gratitude it expresses.
The truest measure of gratitude comes not when our pantries, plates, wallets, bank accounts, and garages are full, but when they’re empty. Can we be grateful and content when we lack these things? “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (I Timothy 6:8).
I once heard a church member comment on this text saying, “Well, I just think it would be a whole lot easier to be content if a person was rich.”
May God help me be less like that and more like Rinkart.