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JOACHIM NEANDER, THE PAUL GERHARDT OF THE CALVINISTS
While all Germany during the latter half of the seventeenth century was singing the sublime lyrics of Paul Gerhardt, prince of Lutheran hymnists, the spirit of hymnody was beginning to stir in the soul of another German poet—Joachim Neander. This man, whose name will always be remembered as the author of one of the most glorious hymns of praise of the Christian Church, was the first hymn-writer produced by the Reformed, or Calvinistic, branch of the Protestant Church.
Hymnody in the Reformed Church had been seriously retarded by the iconoclastic views of Calvin and Zwingli. These Reformers at first frowned on church choirs, organs, and every form of ecclesiastical art. Even hymns, such as those used by the Lutherans, were prohibited because they were the production of men. God could be worshiped in a worthy manner, according to Calvin’s principles, only by hymns which were divinely inspired, namely, the Psalms of the Old Testament Psaltery.
This gave rise to the practice of versifying the Psalms. Calvin’s insistence that there should be the strictest adherence to the original text often resulted in crude paraphrases. The exclusive use of the Psalms explains the development of so-called “psalmody” in the Reformed Church as over against “hymnody” in the Lutheran Church.
Psalmody had its inception in France, where Clement Marot, court poet to King Francis I, rendered a number of 94 the Psalms into metrical form. Marot was a gifted and versatile genius, but not inclined to piety or serious-mindedness. However, his versified Psalms became immensely popular with the French Huguenots and exerted a great influence in the struggle between the Protestants and the papal party. When Marot was compelled to flee to Geneva because of Roman persecution, he collaborated with Calvin in publishing the famous Genevan Psalter, which appeared in 1543.
Following the death of Marot in 1544, Calvin engaged Theodore de Beza to continue the work, and in 1562 the Genevan Psalter was published in completed form, containing all the Psalms in versified dress. The musical editor during the greater part of this period was Louis Bourgeois, to whom is generally ascribed the undying honor of being the composer of probably the most famous of all Christian hymn tunes, “Old Hundredth.”
The Genevan Psalter was translated into many languages, and became the accepted hymn-book of the Reformed Church in Germany, England, Scotland, and Holland, as well as in France. In Germany the most popular version was a translation by Ambrosius Lobwasser, a professor of law at Königsberg, who, oddly enough, was a Lutheran.
For more than 150 years Lutheran hymn-writers had been pouring out a mighty stream of inspired song, but the voice of hymnody was stifled in the Reformed Church. Then came Joachim Neander. His life was short—he died at the age of thirty—and many of his hymns seem to have been written in the last few months before his death; but the influence he exerted on the subsequent hymnody of his Church earned for him the title, “the Gerhardt of the Reformed Church.”95
Neander’s hymns are preeminently hymns of praise. Their jubilant tone and smooth rhythmical flow are at once an invitation to sing them. They speedily found their way into Lutheran hymn-books in Germany, and from thence to the entire Protestant world. Neander’s most famous hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” with its splendid chorale melody, grows in popularity with the passing of years, and promises to live on as one of the greatest Te Deums of the Christian Church.
Joachim Neander was born in Bremen, Germany, in 1650. He came from a distinguished line of clergymen, his father, grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather having been pastors, and all of them bearing the name Joachim Neander.
Young Joachim entered the Academic Gymnasium of Bremen at the age of sixteen years. It seems that he led a careless and profligate life, joining in the sins and follies that characterized student life in his age.
In the year 1670, when Neander was twenty years old, he chanced to attend services in St. Martin’s church, Bremen, where Theodore Under-Eyck had recently come as pastor. Two other students accompanied Neander, their main purpose being to criticize and scoff at the sermon. However, they had not reckoned with the Spirit of God. The burning words of Under-Eyck made a powerful impression on the mind and heart of the youthful Neander, and he who went to scoff came away to pray.
It proved the turning point in the spiritual life of the young student. Under the guidance of Under-Eyck he was led to embrace Christ as his Saviour, and from that time he and Under-Eyck were life-long friends.
The following year Neander became tutor to five young 96 students, accompanying them to the University of Heidelberg. Three years later he became rector of the Latin school at Düsseldorf. This institution was under the supervision of a Reformed pastor, Sylvester Lürsen, an able man, but of contentious spirit. At first the two men worked together harmoniously, Neander assisting with pastoral duties, and preaching occasionally, although he was not ordained as a clergyman. Later, however, he fell under the influence of a group of separatists, and began to imitate their practices. He refused to receive the Lord’s Supper on the grounds that he could not partake of it with the unconverted. He induced others to follow his example. He also became less regular in his attendance at regular worship, and began to conduct prayer meetings and services of his own.
In 1676 the church council of Düsseldorf investigated his conduct and dismissed him from his office. Fourteen days after this action was taken, however, Neander signed a declaration in which he promised to abide by the rules of the church and school, whereupon he was reinstated.
There is a legend to the effect that, during the period of his suspension from service, he spent most of his time living in a cave in the beautiful Neanderthal, near Mettmann, on the Rhine, and that he wrote some of his hymns at this place. It is a well-established fact that Neander’s great love for nature frequently led him to this place, and a cavern in the picturesque glen still bears the name of “Neander’s Cave.” One of the hymns which tradition declares was written in this cave bears the title “Unbegreiflich Gut, Wahrer Gott alleine.” It is a hymn of transcendent beauty. One of the stanzas reads:97
Thee all the mountains praise;
The rocks and glens are full of songs of Thee!
They bid me join my lays,
And laud the mighty Rock, who, safe from every shock,
Beneath Thy shadow here doth shelter me.
Many of Neander’s hymns are odes to nature, but there is always a note of praise to nature’s God. Witness, for instance:
Heaven and earth, and sea and air,
All their Maker’s praise declare;
Wake, my soul, awake and sing,
Now thy grateful praises bring!
“Here behold me, as I cast me,” a penitential hymn by Neander, has found favor throughout all Christendom.
In 1679 Neander’s spiritual friend, Pastor Under-Eyck, invited him to come to Bremen and become his assistant in St. Martin’s church. Although his salary was only 40 thalers a year and a free house, Neander joyfully accepted the appointment. The following year, however, he became sick, and after a lingering illness passed away May 31, 1680, at the age of only thirty years.
During his illness he experienced severe spiritual struggles, but he found comfort in the words, “It is better to hope unto death than to die in unbelief.” On the day of his death he requested that Hebrews 7:9 be read to him. When asked how he felt, he replied: “The Lord has settled my account. Lord Jesus, make also me ready.” A little later he said in a whisper: “It is well with me. The mountains shall be moved, and the hills shall tremble, yet the grace of God shall not depart from me, and His covenant of peace shall not be moved.”
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