First Missions Hymn of Lutheranism
April 9, 2014 Leave a comment
“Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein” (Stanza 1)
By Martin Luther
With a mission festival suddenly on the horizon, I was looking for a manageable setting of a Lutheran missions hymn. Michael Praetorius’ 2-voice arrangement of stanza 1 of “Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein,” found in Part 9 (1610) of his Musae Sioniae (The Muses of Zion), fit the bill perfectly. Based on Psalm 67, “Es wollt uns Gott” is not only considered “the first missionary hymn of Protestantism”; it is also one of the first Lutheran hymns, period. As such, it has a storied history. My favorite anecdote is retold in the Christian Worship: Handbook (Milwaukee: NPH, 1997) on p. 581 (altered slightly to fit the new translation of st. 1 presented below):
In Wolfenbüttel the Catholic prince permitted the singing of several of Luther’s hymns in his chapel. When a priest challenged him concerning this practice and told him finally that the singing of such hymns could no longer be tolerated, the prince asked, “Which hymns?” The priest answered, “My lord, it is called ‘To Us May Our God Gracious Be.'” Whereupon the prince snapped, “Well, then, should the devil be gracious to us? Who can be gracious to us but God?” Thus, the practice of singing Luther’s hymns in that particular chapel was continued.
Unfortunately, the translation of st. 1 found in hymn 574 of Christian Worship (“May God Bestow on Us His Grace”) did not lend itself well to Praetorius’ setting.
Time to translate.
First, the original text, with lines ( | | ) demarcating phrases that had to be kept intact in the translation (that is, had to contain the same number of syllables and make sense, not breaking off in the middle of a word or prepositional phrase) in order to fit the setting:
Es wollt uns Gott genädig sein
Und seinen Segen geben
| Sein Antlitz uns | mit hellem Schein
Erleucht zum ew(i)gen Leben
| Daß wir erkennen | seine Werk’
Und was ihm liebt auf Erden
| Und Jesus Christus | Heil und Stärk’
Bekannt den Heiden werden
Und sie zu Gott | bekehren |
Then, a literal translation unhindered by meter or other restrictions:
May it please God to be gracious to us
And give (us) his blessing,
May his countenance with brilliant shine
Illuminate us to eternal life,
So that we recognize his works
And what is pleasing to him on earth,
And (so that) Jesus Christ’s salvation and strength
Are broadcast to the heathens,
And convert them to God.
Lines 5-8 proved most difficult by far. I ended up having to make all the verbs passive, instead of alternating between the active voice in lines 5-6 and the passive voice in lines 7-8, as in the original. What I ended up with is the product below.
Since, instead of copying the music from an original 1610 edition, it was graciously copied for me from the Gesamtausgabe der musikalischen Werke (Georg Kallmeyer, 1929) by the staff of the Martin Luther College Library, I don’t feel comfortable sharing the music publicly here. However, I am willing to share it legally for non-profit purposes with other confessional Lutheran clergy and choir personnel upon request. Simply use the contact info on my About page to submit a request for a PDF file of the 2-voice choir setting.
I pray this fresh translation of the first stanza of Lutheranism’s first missions hymn serves to remind especially Lutherans of the high priority that the Lutheran Church has always (rightly) placed on mission work, and that, even if only in a very small way, it encourages her to continue to do so with ever-increasing zeal. I pray that it might also serve any English-speaking Christians that come across it as a fitting, and memorizable, missions prayer.
To Us May Our God Gracious Be
To us may our God gracious be
And bless us in rich measure;
May his kind face shine brilliantly,
Guide us to life forever.
To us shall God’s works then be known
And God-pleasing behavior,
And to the heathens shall be shown
The pow’r of Christ their Savior,
Which shall cause their conversion.