German hymn rejoices in God’s eternal reign

C. Michael Hawn

C. Michael Hawn

Frances Elizabeth Cox (1812-1897) devoted herself to the translation of hymns from the German language into English. In total, she published 56 hymns in Sacred Hymns from the German(1841, 2nd edition, 1864).

Though little is known about Cox’s life, her translations remain a testament to her accomplishments. Of the approximately 80 texts she translated, most appear in the second edition of Sacred Hymns. The Companion to the Psalter Hymnal tells us, “Her choice of hymns was often determined by her friend, Baron Bunsen, the Prussian ambassador to England.” The two best translators of hymns from the German in the 19th century are generally considered to be Cox and Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878).

Cox translated the first eight stanzas of this hymn for Orby Shipley’s Lyra Eucharistica (1864). The original German hymn, “Sei Lob und Ehr’dem höchsten Gut” (“Let Praise and Honor be the Highest Good”), was written by Johann J. Schütz (1640-1690).

Schütz, a practitioner of civil and canon law, was influenced by Philipp Jakob Spener, the father of the Pietist movement in Germany. This German Lutheran movement of the 17th and 18th centuries emphasized, according to church historian James D. Nelson, a “heartfelt religious devotion, ethical purity, charitable activity, and pastoral theology rather than sacramental or dogmatic precision.” Pietism emerged in reaction to the formality of Lutheran orthodoxy.

The Rev. Carlton Young notes that Schütz suggested that Spener should begin his influential prayer meetings (Collegia Pietatis), an activity that signaled for many scholars the beginning of the Pietist movement. Spener’s Pia Desideria (1675) proposed that a religion of the heart should replace a religion of the head. Several hymn writers were influenced by this movement including Moravian Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, whose evangelical awakenings throughout Europe and in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries had a strong influence on John Wesley and Methodism.

Rather than the distant, rigid God of orthodox Lutheranism, Cox notes in stanza two that the “Lord is never far away.” Dr. Young suggests that Cox’s translation “has skillfully maintained the hymn’s balance between the strong and powerful biblical metaphors for God and the warm pietistic [ones such as] ‘As with a mother’s tender hand’” (stanza 2).

The joyful tone and the first-person singular perspective found in stanza three also indicate the Pietist perspective. The original stanza three was not included in the UM Hymnal:

What God’s almighty power hath made,
His gracious mercy keepeth;
By morning glow or evening shade,
His watchful eye ne’er sleepeth;
Within the kingdom of his might,
Lo! all is just and all is right:
To God all praise and glory.

The Hymnal Revision Committee did not include this stanza “because of the perceived ambiguity if not contradiction in lines five and six between God’s powerful establishment of his kingdom on earth and its attributes of justice and righteousness.”

An early 20th-century American hymn expresses a related idea, but is not as ambiguous. Maltbie Babcock, a New York Presbyterian pastor, states the following in the third stanza of “This is My Father’s World” (1901):

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seem oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

Cox’s translation of those critical lines five and six of the omitted third stanza may be derived from a very classist 19th-century British monarchy where the very structures of society were foreordained by God, and thus “all is just and all is right.” Within the Anglican Church, Calvinism was very influential and its fervent predestination would have also fueled such a view.

A 21st-century sensibility would see justice in terms of the needs of the hungry, the poor and the disadvantaged, and victims of racism, sexism and other issues—not in terms of predetermined societal structures. Thus, the words may be the same, but most likely the meaning of them is very different.


“Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above”
Johann J. Schütz, trans. Frances Cox
UM Hymnal, No. 126

Sing praise to God who reigns above,
The God of all creation,
The God of power, the God of love,
The God of our salvation.
With healing balm my soul is filled
And every faithless murmur stilled:
To God all praise and glory.


 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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