This hymn of the reformation movement was written by Martin Luther sometime between 1527 and 1529, and it was published in 1531 in German. The work was originally translated into English by Miles Coverdale in 1539. In 1853, Frederick H. Hedge translated this German hymn into English as we commonly sing it. Some refer to this hymn as the “Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” Others have said of this hymn: “the greatest hymn of the greatest man of the greatest period of German history.” The hymn certainly is a classic!
Martin Luther (1483-1546), Lyricist & Composer
Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany to Hans and Margarete Lindemann Luther. His father worked in the copper and smelting industry. His parents wanted Luther to study law, but a severe thunderstorm convinced Luther to become an Augustinian monk. He obtained the Bachelors of Arts (1502) and Masters of Arts (1505) from the University of Erfurt. In 1507 he was ordained a Catholic Priest. Luther decided to study theology at the University of Wittenberg. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in 1509, and then in 1512 Luther obtained the Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Wittenberg, and he became a teacher at the university. He could read Latin, but also Greek and Hebrew.
In 1517, Pope Leo X offered Indulgences in exchange for giving alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Dominican monk Johann Tetzel went about collecting funds for indulgences teaching that the temporal punishment of Purgatory could be lessened. The popular phrase—“As soon as money in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory's fire springs.” October 31, 1517 is viewed by many as the start of the Protestant Reformation. It is the date on which Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of Castle Church (500 Years Ago!) Keep in mind that there were no denominations 500 years ago! Some scholars contest whether or not Luther nailed these to the door; however, it was not uncommon for such documents to be posted. These were written in Latin, but someone translated these into German and via the printing press they were circulated throughout the land. Before Luther realized it, a revolt was occurring that was not only religious but economical and political. At first, some thought it was an argument between the Augustinian Order (Martin Luther) and the Dominican Order (John Tetzel), but it would not be long until an international controversy emerged. There is no mistaking these words from Thesis 86: "Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?" Pope Leo X issued a bull of excommunication against Luther on June 15, 1520, but Luther burned it in a public demonstration on December 10, 1520. Pope Leo X issued the bull of excommunication which declared Luther a heretic on January 3, 1521 which had carried the death sentence in other instances. Charles V of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor declared that no one would be convicted without a proper hearing which would occur at the Diet of Worms which began April 17, 1521.
We do not have time to examine all the events of Luther’s life or his writings; however, there are some early writings that are important to mention. In August 1520, Luther published Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation which was a major attack on the authority of the Pope over Germany’s economy. In October 1520, Luther published On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church which challenged the authority of the sacraments being exclusively from Rome. Luther was called to the Diet of Worms in 1521 to answer charges of heresy. This was a dangerous situation since 50 years prior the same situation led to the burning of John Huss who was deemed a heretic. When Luther arrived, he was asked two questions by John Eck: Are these your books on the table? Do you recant what you have written? Luther confirmed the books were his, but he had written others too. Luther requested 24 hours to respond to the second question. He wanted a discussion of the issues, but they wanted censure. When the trial reconvened the next day, Luther stated in his conclusion: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” Luther was deemed a heretic, made an outlaw, and there were calls for his execution. Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, had guaranteed Luther’s safety, so Luther was allowed to leave. He was kidnapped on the return by friends and sheltered at the Wartburg Castle where he worked on translating the New Testament into German. One of the great things Luther did was translate the New Testament into the language of the people (German) which allowed people to read and compare what they were taught from Rome versus what was taught in the Scriptures. The NT was completed in 1522, and the remainder of the “Lutheran Bible” would be completed in 1534.
In April 1523, Luther married a former nun, Katharina von Bora Luther (1499–1552) which was another protest against the Catholic doctrine of celibacy, plus they had five children. Luther died February 18, 1546 in Eisleben, Germany and was buried in Schlosskirche (“Castle Church”), Wittenberg, Germany. Luther’s teachings are sometimes controversial even among Lutherans themselves. For example: “I ask that men make no reference to my name, and call themselves not Lutherans, but Christians. What is Luther? My doctrine, I am sure, is not mine, nor have I been crucified for anyone one. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3, would not allow Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian. How then should I, poor foul carcass that I am, come to have men give to the children of God a name derived from my worthless name? No, no, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names, and call ourselves Christians after Him Whose doctrine we have.” (Luther, “An Earnest Exhortation for All Christians, Warning Them Against Insurrection and Rebellion,” Works of Martin Luther, Vol. 3, p. 218.)
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Martin Luther made valuable contributions to hymnody, including congregational singing, in his day as one writer noted: “This man, who had given back the Bible to his countrymen in their own tongue, had also restored the practice of congregational singing, writing hymns in his own language and composing tunes that he felt his people would love to sing. He made music once more the joy of the entire congregation rather than the sole duty of the choir, and gave it the spontaneity which has always characterized Christian hymnody at its best; he even allowed the women to sing with the others in public, a privilege that had been withheld from them for a thousand years.” (Ernest K. Emurian. Living Stories of Famous Hymns, 12)
The hymn is commonly believed to be based on Psalm 46. It is reported that Martin Luther would say “Come, let us sing the 46th Psalm and let the devil do his worst.” Luther had certainly put the words to the test!
With this historical background, perhaps the best way to complement this hymn is with a reading of the Psalm that inspired it:
God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah
There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.
The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.
Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
— Psalm 46 New King James Version
Come! Let us sing the 46th Psalm, and let Satan do his worst.
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Cecil May. “God Gives Me Refuge (Psalm 46).” "When I Study the Psalms..." Enlarging My Faith - Eliminating Fears. Moundsville, WV: West Virginia School of Preaching, 2015.
Ernest K. Emurian. Living Stories of Famous Hymns. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1955, 11–13.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.
“Martin Luther.” No Pages. Cited 19 October 2017. Online: https://hymnary.org/person/Luther_Martin.
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Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1937, 96–98.
Steve Ellis. “A Mighty Fortress.” Lessons in Lyrics. Memphis, TN: Memphis School of Preaching, 1998, 23–31.
V. E. Howard and Broadus E. Smith, eds. Church Gospel Songs & Hymns. Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.