Above: The Fort, Coburg, Thuringia, Germany, 1890
Image Source = Library of Congress
Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ppmsca-01086
JOHANN(ES) MATTHAUS MEYFART (NOVEMBER 9, 1590-JANUARY 26, 1642)
German Lutheran Educator and Devotional Writer
I grew up in rural United Methodist congregations in southern Georgia, U.S.A., in the 1980s and early 1990s. The dominant form of piety in those churches was akin to that one found in neighboring Southern Baptist churches. It was like that old joke that Methodists are Baptists who can read. Then, in late 1991, I became an Episcopalian, for my inherent piety was closer to Roman Catholicism yet somewhat Protestant. Five years later, shortly before the presidential election, I watched a dual biography of President Bill Clinton and Senator Robert Dole on public television. The narrator described the nature of United Methodism in Kansas, prompting me to think that I preferred that to the character of United Methodism in rural southern Georgia. A few years ago I started exploring Lutheranism via books, such as the Book of Concord and various service books-hymnals. I have enjoyed this ongoing process, which has convinced me that German and Scandinavian hymnody is superior to the one inflicted upon me as a child. Unfortunately, that inferior hymnody has been pursuing me even into The Episcopal Church during the last few years, prompting me sometimes to resort to speaking in two languages within one conversation, using French strategically. On other occasions I have maintained a passive-aggressive silence instead. But I digress, as much as I remain an unrepentant European classicist.
Johann(es) Matthaus Meyfart (1590-1642) contributed to the treasures of Lutheran hymnody. His father was a Lutheran pastor at Wahlwinkel, near Gotha, in the Holy Roman Empire. Our saint’s mother was visiting her parents at Jena when she gave birth on November 9, 1590. Meyfart studied at the Universities of Wittenberg and Jena (M.A., 1611; D.D. 1624). His career was mainly an academic one. He taught philosophy at Jena for a few years before moving to Coburg in 1616. There he served as a professor at the gymnasium until becoming director in 1623. At that school, as The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (1942) informs me,
he had great moral power.
To state that differently, in the words of The Hymnal 1940 Companion (1949),
he exerted a remarkable influence on all his pupils.
Our saint’s tenure at Coburg ended due to his dissertation on church discipline, De Disciplina Ecclesiastica (1633). Many of his colleagues complained to the government because they disagreed with the dissertation’s contents.
The future Duke Ernst I of Gotha came to Meyfart’s rescue, offering him a new position. Our saint became a professor of theology at the University of Erfurt. In 1634 he became the Rector of the University. And, starting in 1636, Meyfart served as the pastor of the Prediger Church in town. Controversy followed our saint, for another writing on the subject of church discipline caused problems for him at Erfurt. These controversies affected Meyfart adversely.
Meyfart seemed drawn to controversies. He wrote a text, Anti-Becanus, in the context of a debate with Martin Becanus (1563-1624), a Jesuit, regarding Socinianism. Becanus condemned not only Socinianism but all Protestant theology. He and Meyfart, therefore, had the denunciation of Socinianism in common. Our saint, however, was a Lutheran, therefore in a position to argue against Becanus.
Socinianism is multi-faceted; here is a partial explanation:
- The Roman Catholic Church condemns Socinianism as a heresy.
- Socinianism teaches that Jesus was purely human nature, that God adopted him as the Son of God, that Jesus embodied the Word or will of God, that Jesus is nevertheless worthy of adoration, and that God bestowed the government of the world on him after the Ascension.
- Therefore Socinianism denies the Holy Trinity. In fact, Socinianism influenced the development of Unitarian theology, especially with regard to the nature of Jesus.
Meyfart wrote devotional works, from which hymns came. These books indicated great literary skill and a firm grasp of theology. Eduard Emil Koch (1809-1871) wrote of Meyfart in 1871. Our saint was
a German Dante, full of learning and fantasy, an individual that one would seldom encounter anywhere.
The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal (1941) indicated that these devotional books were
noted for their vivid portrayals and their earnest calls to repentance and amendment of life.
One of Meyfart’s hymns, drawn from Tuba Novissima (1626), exists in English in various translations and altered forms thereof. Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) published her translation in the second volume of her Lyra Germanica (1858). (Consult pages 237-239, O reader.) The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) contains an altered version of the Winkworth translation as “Jerusalem, Thou City Fair and High.” The Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) calls the hymn “Jerusalem, Whose Towers Touch the Skies.” Lutheran Worship (1982) and the Lutheran Service Book (2006) list the hymn as “Jerusalem, O City Fair and High.” William Rollinson Whittingham (1805-1879), Episcopal Bishop of Maryland from 1840 to 1879, prepared his own translation, which debuted in Hymns for Church and Home, Compiled by Members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, as a Contribution to Any Addition That May Be Made to the Hymns Now Attached to the Prayer-Book (1860):
Jerusalem! high tower thy glorious walls,
Would God I were in thee!
Desire of thee my longing heart enthralls,
Desire at home to be;
Wide from the world outleaping,
O’er hill and vale and plain,
My soul’s strong wing is sweeping
Thy portals to attain.
O gladsome day and yet more gladsome hour!
When shall that hour have come
When my rejoicing soul its own free power
May use in going home,
Itself to Jesus giving
In trust to his own hand,
To dwell among the living
In that blest fatherland?
A moment’s time, the twinkling of an eye
Shall be enough, to soar
In buoyant exultation, through the sky
And reach the heavenly shore.
Elijah’s chariot bringing
The homeward traveller there;
Glad troops of angels winging
It onward through the air.
Great fastness thou of honor! thee I greet!
Throw wide thy gracious gate,
An entrance free to give these longing feet;
At last released, though late,
From wretchedness and sinning,
And life’s long weary way;
And now, of God’s gift, winning
Eternity’s bright day.
What throng is this, what noble troop, that pours,
Arrayed in beauteous guise,
Out through the glorious city’s open doors,
To greet my wondering eyes?
The host of Christ’s elected,
The jewels that he bears
In his own crown, selected
To wipe away my tears.
Of prophets great, and patriarchs high, a band
That once has borne the cross,
With all the company that won that land,
By counting gain for loss,
Now float in freedom’s lightness,
From tyrant’s chains set free;
And shine like suns in brightness,
Arrayed to welcome me.
Once more at last arrived they welcome there,
To beauteous Paradise;
Where sense can scarce its full fruition bear
Or tongue for praise suffice;
Glad hallelujahs ringing
With rapturous rebound,
And rich hosannahs singing
Eternity’s long round.
Unnumbered choirs before the Lamb’s high throne
There shout the jubilee,
With loud resounding peal and sweetest tone,
In blissful ecstasy:
A hundred thousand voices
Take up the wondrous song;
God’s praises to prolong.
Meyfart died at Erfurt on January 26, 1642.
Reading about Meyfart reminds me of the fact that many gems of German Lutheran hymnody do not exist in any English-language translation. That fact makes me with that the opposite were true.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
MAY 22, 2015 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF RICHARD BIGGS, ACTOR
THE FEAST OF GEORG GOTTFRIED MULLER, GERMAN-AMERICAN MORAVIAN MINISTER AND COMPOSER
THE FEAST OF JULIA BULKLEY CADY CORY, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN HYMN WRITER
Dear God of beauty,
you have granted literary ability and spiritual sensitivity to
Johann(es) Matthaus Meyfart and others, who have composed hymn texts.
May we, as you guide us,
find worthy hymn texts to be icons,
through which we see you.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 44:1-3a, 5-15
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
APRIL 20, 2013 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS AMATOR OF AUXERRE AND GERMANUS OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS; SAINT MAMERTINUS OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT; AND SAINT MARCIAN OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK
THE FEAST OF JOHANNES BUGENHAGEN, GERMAN LUTHERAN PASTOR
THE FEAST OF SAINT MARCELLINUS OF EMBRUN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP
THE FEAST OF OLAVUS AND LAURENTIUS PETRI, RENEWERS OF THE CHURCH