Mighty Fortress Is Our God, A (Ein Feste Burg)
DESCRIPTION: Originally in German; now English: A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing." God is a help in the world's troubles, and can rescue those who cannot save themselves. God endures forever
AUTHOR: Martin Luther / usual English words by F. H. Hedge
EARLIEST DATE: 1529 (sources: Johnson, Julian); English words 1852 (Julian)
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Warren-Spirit, pp. 241-242, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fireside, p. 278, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (Ein' Feste Burg)" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), p. 21 "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" (1 text, 1 tune)
John Julian, editor, _A Dictionary of Hymnology_, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), pp. 321-325, "Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott" (1 German text)
What Gives the Wheat Fields Blades of Steel? (File: SBoA236)
NOTES: I suspect the fact that this hymn does not seem to have been collected in tradition indicates primarily that relatively few collectors have worked the Upper Midwest. My experience is that almost all Lutherans (the dominant Christian denomination in Minnesota and other Midwestern states) know at least one verse by heart, but with folk processing errors, and I have included it on that basis.
According to Johnson, p. 20, this "was written in 1529 shortly after the Diet of [Speyer], when German princes made formal protest against revoking some of their liberties and received the name Protestants." This contradicts an account by Heinrich Heine, who claimed that it was a "battle hymn" sung as Luther attended the Diet of Worms in 1521 (Julian, p. 323). Julian points out that Heine's account is surely wrong; had the song been in existence by then, Luther would have published it in his 1524 hymnal, which he did not do. Julian agrees with Johnson's belief that it was probably written in 1529, before the Diet of Speyer. The earliest surviving text, however, was published in 1531.
Julian, pp. 324-325, lists eighteen translations in "common use" and another 44 that are not in common use, and lists four more on pp. 1561 and 1631, but the "A Mighty Fortress" lyric is the one everyone sings; the others are probably used only to shake up congregations once in a while. Admittedly I'm not a Lutheran, but the only one that sounds even slightly familiar to me is Godfrey Thring's "A Fortress Sure is God Our King," from 1882.
One rendering that does not seem to have become well-known was made as early as 1539 by Miles Coverdale, who also created the first officially approved English Bible; it begins "Oure God is a defence and towre, A good armour and good weapon" (Reynolds, p. 24). Reynolds, p. 25, claims that an 1852 translation by Frederick H. Hedge (1805-1890), a Unitarian minister and professor of German, but it's new to me.
The German text is allegedly based on Psalm 46, but Julian grants (p. 704) that it "takes... hardly anything from the Psalm." The psalm perhaps gave the idea rather than any real text; it refers to God as a "strength" and a "refuge," and it isn't far from there to the "Feste Burg."
Incidentally, even English versions that mention the Mighty Fortress may not be very close to the Luther text; according to McKim, p. 185, the version sung by Presbyterians has only the first two lines from Luther (translated by Frederick Henry Hodge); the rest was made up by the Roman Catholic musician Omer Westendorf ("J. Clifford Evers") and published in 1964; this version was intended to bring it closer to the actual Psalm 46. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
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