THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: Martin Rinkart was born in 1586 to a poor coppersmith in Eilenburg, Germany. Due to his family poverty and low standing in the community he was not destined for an education but he wanted one so badly that he scraped together enough – through sheer persistence in hard work, frugality, and using his natural musical talents – to pay his own way through the University of Leipzig. His heart’s desire was to be a pastor.
When a position for deacon came open in 1610, he applied but was not accepted. Disappointed but resolute, he accepted work in a Lutheran church school. But on May 28, 1611 he worked his way into the diaconate at St. Anne’s Church in Eisleben. Proving his value through his giftings and hard work, his hometown of Eilenburg invited him to come home and be the archdeacon of their parish. By 1617, his life dream was fulfilled when he became their full pastor.
Little did Martin know that pastoring was going to be a tougher job than anyone could have guessed. In 1618 the Thirty Years’ War broke out. Because Eilenburg was a walled city, refugees from the countryside poured in for safety. The overcrowding, combined with the consequences of war, led to serious food shortages. History records fights in the streets over the bodies of dead cats and crows. In 1637, plague followed and wreaked havoc on the weakened bodies. The four pastors in town began holding ten or more funerals a day. In his weakened and overwhelmed state, one of the pastors simply ran away. When the remaining two pastors died from plague, it was up to Martin to bury them and continue to provide pastoral care to the entire town and the refugees it held. In that first year, more than 8000 people died and Martin Rinkart often buried as many as fifty people a day, including his own wife.
Martin survived the entire ordeal maintaining incredible health despite spending his days among the sick and dying. He gave away all he owned except for the meager necessary provisions for his own children, even mortgaging any future income he would receive.
Admist all this suffering the Swedes continued to besige their city. When the impossible tribute of 30,000 florins was demanded by the Swedish general, it was Pastor Rinkart who was sent to lead the city delegation to beg mercy from the commander. When his pleas were refused, he turned to the citizens behind him and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” He fell to his knees and spoke to God with such a desperate earnestness that the general relented, lowering the demand to 2000 florins.
When it finally appeared that there would be relief and, perhaps, the beginnings of peace, Martin wrote a hymn of gratitude for his children to sing at the dinner table, “Nun danket alle Gott.” He taught it also to his congregation and it was later translated into English by Catherine Winkworth as “Now Thank We All Our God:”
“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.”
His simple but noble expression of thankfulness provided us with one of the most beloved hymns of the Christian church.
Regardless of what exhausting and seemingly hopeless circumstances you face today, take heart and thank God that His “countless gifts of love” are truly still ours today.
Click here to listen to the Lincoln Minster School Choir singing Martin Rinkart’s most famous hymn.