Studies in the Lutheran Chorales: May God Bestow on Us His Grace (TLH 500/CW 574)
Article by Hilton Oswald
Since this is written in the midst of our Mission Festival season, it is appropriate that we begin with the discussion of a chorale especially suited to this season, the first missionary hymn of the Lutheran Church, Es wollt uns Gott gnaedig sein (“May God Bestow on Us His Grace”). Obviously Luther recognized the great mission opportunity and responsibility of the newly-formed church very early, for this is one of the first of his chorales written specifically for congregational singing. Its date, quite unlike those of the other hymns of Luther, is known fairly exactly, January 18, 1524. It is first quoted at the close of Paul Speratus’ monograph entitled Ein Weise christlich Mess zu halten (The Proper Way to Conduct a Christian Mass), which was a translation of Luther’s Formula Missae et Communionis. Some rather interesting inferences may be drawn from the fact that the chorale made its initial appearance at the conclusion of Luther’s first order of the service. Something of Luther’s intention for this chorale may thus be learned. This hymn was written for use in congregational worship, yet not for a special festival (Mission Festivals did not exist in Luther’s day), but for the close of the regular Sunday service. The fact that Luther suggested the use of Psalm 67:7-8 as an alternate form of benediction in the Formula Missae, closing it with an Amen not contained in the psalm itself, coincides well with the use of the same material in stanza three of our hymn. Further proof for the fact that we have here the first “closing hymn” for the regular service is given by a Strassburg liturgy of 1525, which places the chorale after the sermon, and by a Nuernberg broadsheet, which assigns to it a place just before the closing benediction. We have, then, a hymn intended to be used regularly as the closing hymn and containing the thought of invoking our Lord’s blessing upon ourselves with the purpose that we may, as we leave the house of God, carry God’s “saving health” out into the world in order to show “Christ’s riches” to the heathen and thus convert them to God. Could a more fitting thought for the close of worship be suggested? Is there another hymn that offers so grand a finale, particularly for a Mission Festival service?
Two widely different tunes for this hymn presented themselves in the year 1524. In Johann Walther’s Gesangbuechlein (“Little Hymnal”) a melody in the Dorian mode accompanied the text. This tune, however, very soon became more closely identified with Luther’s baptismal hymn, Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (“Christ Our Lord to the Jordan Came”). The tune which bears the name of our hymn appeared first in Strassburg and since 1543 has been the only melody associated with the text. This tune in the Phrygian mode is rather difficult for the memory at the first hearing, but its modal beauty and melismatic patterns never cease to grow for him who will go beyond a mere nodding acquaintance with it. For a quick sample of this beauty, consider the depth of comfort which the melody evokes from the words gnaedig sein (bestow on us his grace) in the first line, hellem Schein (brightness of his face) in the second, and ew’gem Leben (life eternal guide us) in the third; or if you must convince yourself in English (you need not be medieval or German to enjoy this), take the words “praise,” “increasing,” “fruit,” and “blessing” of the third stanza.
How effective this chorale once was in the hearts of Lutherans can perhaps best be learned from the opposition shown to it by the Catholics in the 16th century. One chronicle reports that a certain citizen of Magdeburg, who promoted the sale of a printed sheet containing this hymn and Aus tiefer Not (“From Depths of Woe”) and who attracted his customers in the city square by singing the hymns on the street-corner, was falsely accused to the burgomaster, who was just coming from attendance at early mass, and by him arbitrarily sent to prison without inquiry into the offense. In justice to the burgomaster, however, it should be said that he corrected matters a few days later upon the insistence of the salesman’s friends. An even more reliable report of 1529 tells us that in two suburbs of Leipzig the priests forbade the people “to sing the German Christian hymn, ‘May God Bestow on Us His Grace,’ in church and at home.” But the story of a failure of such tactics should also be added. In Wolfenbuettel the Catholic prince permitted the singing of several of Luther’s hymns in his chapel. When a priest remonstrated with him concerning this practice and told him finally that the singing of such hymns could no longer be tolerated, the prince asked, “Which hymns?” The priest answered, “My lord, it is called ‘May God Bestow on Us His Grace.’” Whereupon the prince snapped, “Well, then, should the devil be gracious to us? Who can be gracious to us but God?” And the practice of singing Luther’s hymns was continued in that particular chapel!
In seven years of Mission Festivals since the introduction of The Lutheran Hymnal the writer has heard only one congregation try to sing this chorale, and that congregation did it remarkably well, even without preparation. Shall we try to get away from Greenland’s icy mountains and reinstate this Reformation gem? That would be another worthwhile project to complete for the centennial of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and who can estimate how much it would help the other projects?