This stately hymn of praise and thanksgiving comes from one of the darkest periods in European history. The words were written by Martin Rinkart during the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648. The war was concentrated in Germany, involved most of Europe, and was a series of religious-political conflicts.
Just as the war broke out, thirty-one-year-old Rinkart was called to pastor in his hometown of Eilenberg, Germany, near Leipzig. Since Eilenberg was a walled city, it became flooded with refugees. The overcrowding brought lawlessness, destruction, famine, and disease, making life in the town unbearable. Eight hundred homes were destroyed, and people perished. The Great Plague of 1637 was so devastating that Rinkart was the only minister left in the city, and he sometimes preached fifty funerals a day. He ministered at the burial of almost 5,000 people that year, but when the death toll reached 8,000, the responsibility became too great, and the dead had to be buried in trenches without a service. His wife was one who succumbed to the disease.
After the Plague, the town was hit by a famine so extensive that large numbers of people could be found fighting in the streets for any dead animal that could be used for food. Throughout the war, Rinkart did all he could to help those in need, giving away most of what he had and keeping only the barest necessities for his hungry family. He eventually had to mortgage his future income to buy bread and clothes for his children.
Furthermore, add to the misery, during the war's final years, the city was sacked by invading armies three different times. The Swedish Army once imposed an unjust tax on the people. Rinkart left the city to meet with the Swedish commander to ask for mercy. The pastor’s plea was refused, and he returned to the town and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men; let us take refuge with God.” They fell to their knees, and he led them in prayer and the singing of a hymn. The Swedish commander was so moved by their confidence and faith in God that he relented and lowered his demand.
Through all the years of suffering and death, Martin Rinkart had a strong faith in God and wrote a hymn expressing praise and thanksgiving for the blessings he still had. Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:20). The first two stanzas of “Now Thank We All Our God” were used as a grace at meals in the pastor’s home, and the third stanza was added later as a personal statement of thanksgiving and faith in an all-powerful God. The first stanza expresses thanks to God for His “countless gifts of love,” and the second stanza asks for God’s continuing care. The last stanza is a Trinitarian doxology praising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “the one eternal God.” The tune is by Rinkart’s contemporary, Johann Crüger, one of Germany’s most distinguished musicians of that day. The hymn first appeared in the 1647 edition of Crüger’s hymnal. Almost 200 years later, it was translated into English by a gifted translator, Catherine Winkworth.
On October 24, 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, marking the end of the Thirty Years’ War. The following year, an exhausted Martin Rinkart went to his heavenly home, leaving behind the place and the people he loved so much. His ministry was during a time of intense suffering, but he was always ready to lift his voice to God in praise because God’s promises were a reality in Rinkart’s life.
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
Who wondrous things hath done, In Whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, And still is ours today.
Oh 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 heav’n adore,
For thus it was, is now, And shall be evermore!
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