Three Cheers for German Hymnody

In evening worship last night, I was struck by the fact that many of my favorite hymns have a common thread tying them together: Catherine Winkworth. So many excellent hymn texts have been translated by Catherine Winkworth from German to English, many of which are still sung in worship regularly. In her relatively brief career (she died in 1878 at 51), she published hundreds of hymn translations, some now obscure, but many well known and well loved. It doesn’t hurt that many of her translations are paired with Bach or Cruger tunes. To give you an idea of the pervasiveness of Winkworth’s work in our hymnals, these are some well-known Winkworth translations:

  • Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended?
  • Comfort, Comfort Ye My People
  • From Heaven Above to Earth I Come
  • How Brightly Shines the Morning Star
  • Now Thank We All Our God
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
  • Whate’er My God Ordains is Right

Some may find many of her texts archaic or even opaque at times (“Hence with earthly treasure!”), but I find them poetic, rich, and dense. She also translated in a wide subject area of hymns. Here are some examples; consult your hymnal’s index to see how many Winkworth texts made it in.

From “All My Heart this Night Rejoices,” a Christmas hymn:

Shall we still dread God’s displeasure,
Who, to save,
Freely gave
His most cherished treasure?
To redeem us, he hath given
His own Son
From the throne
Of his might in heaven.

He becomes the Lamb that taketh
Sin away
And for aye
Full atonement maketh.
For our life his own he tenders;
And our race,
By his grace,
Meet for glory renders.

From “Baptized into Your Name Most Holy,” a, well, baptism hymn:

Baptized into your name most holy,
O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
I claim a place, though weak and lowly,
Among your seed, your chosen host;
Buried with Christ, and dead to sin,
Your Spirit e’er shall live within.

From “Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness,” a Eucharist hymn:

Now in faith I humbly ponder
Over this surpassing wonder
That the bread of life is boundless
Though the souls it feeds are countless;
With the choicest wine of heaven
Christ’s own blood to us is given.
Oh, most glorious consolation,
Pledge and seal of my salvation.

From “Jesus, Priceless Treasure,” a hymn of trust:

Though the earth be shaking,
Ev’ry heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear.
Lightnings flash and thunders crash;
Yet, though sin and hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

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