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Johann von Rist

The two most famous hymn-writers of this time were, however, Johann von Rist and Johann Heermann. Rist was born in 1607, the son of a pastor at a village close to Hamburg, and was destined from the first by his father to the study of theology. As a youth he was distinguished by precocious and varied talent; he visited several universities, including Leipsic, Utrecht, and Leyden, and studied mathematics, 189 chemistry, and medicine, as well as divinity. Still quite a young man, he returned to Hamburg with the reputation of a great traveller, scholar, and poet, and was at once appointed to a church just outside Hamburg, on the banks of the Elbe. Here he spent the remainder of his life, at first pleasantly enough, but in the later years of the war suffering like others severely under its scarcity, terror, and pestilence. He was an active pastor and a great preacher, and insisted much on a certain strictness of life; for instance, he persuaded his people to abolish the customary merrymakings at Candlemas. Though he was a very strict Lutheran in doctrine, he was accused by some of the bigoted Lutherans of preaching too little against heresy and on controverted questions. His reply was "that he believed there were not above a couple of strangers in his congregation who held false doctrine, but plenty of people who led sinful lives; and to accuse men of heresy never produced a living, fruitful faith in them, only pride and impulses of hatred." But if he wisely did not preach controversy, he had no objection to print it, and he became involved in many very acrimonious disputes, theological and literary. He was in correspondence with all the principal clergymen and authors of his time, "so that scarce a day passed on which he did not receive a letter," then a matter of great wonderment. But he was most celebrated for his religious poems and hymns, of which he published ten collections, containing between 600 and 700 pieces, intended to supply every possible requirement of public worship or private experience. That in such a mass of writings on a limited range of subjects there should 190 be a great deal that is very watery and poor was inevitable; many of his poems are evidently manufactured to order; others in the attempt to attain a little individuality sink into depths of bombast and bad taste; the wonder is rather that so many are really good, and some belong to the first rank of hymns. In his own day they were all admired: he was the most fertile, and next to Opitz certainly the most favourite, poet of the time. Honours poured in upon him: he attained the highest titles in Church and State open to a clergyman, and received from the Emperor the crown of poet-laureate, and a patent of nobility. He founded a society of "Swans of the Elbe," of which he was the head, as a sort of offshoot of the great Fruit-bearing Society, and by the members of this order, and indeed by many others of his contemporaries, he is lauded as the Northern Apollo, the Cimbrian Swan, the God of the German Parnassus; a certain little hill near his residence, where he was accustomed to write his verses, being the Parnassus in question. His first volume of poems, "The Poetical Pleasure Garden," was partly secular, but his after-productions were almost exclusively sacred, they were caught up eagerly by the musicians of the day, and quickly found their way into congregational use in Evangelical Germany, while even among the Roman Catholics they were read with delight, and one Empress lamented, "that it were a great pity if the writer of such hymns should be sent to hell." He died at the age of sixty, in 1667.

In his youth Rist is said to have suffered much from mental conflicts, and one or two of his penitential 191 hymns speak of such experience; but his general tone is rather one of unhesitating faith and courage, and fervid love to the Saviour, such as breathe through his hymns for Advent, and for the Holy Communion, of which two,

"O Living Bread from heaven,"

and another,

"O Jesu, Sun of gladness,"

are still in constant use. Another hymn which, partly from its noble and pathetic melody, has become a universal favourite, and the pattern on which many others have been written, is the following one on the Entombment. Rist himself says that he found the first verse in a collection of religious popular songs, and liked it so much that he wrote the others to it.

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