Posted by: rcottrill | October 22, 2010

Today in 1697 – Katharina von Schlegel Born

Little is known of this hymn writer with the impressive name, Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel. She was attached to a small ducal court at Cothen, Germany. (One source says she headed an evangelical Lutheran nunnery there.) Before she died in 1768, she apparently wrote 29 hymns, but only one of Graphic Jesus on the Seathem has been translated (by Jane Borthwick) and remains in common use. That is the beautiful Be Still, My Soul, which likely draws its inspiration in part from Ps. 46:10-11.

Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah [Think of that!]

As the Lord came to the disciples walking on the stormy sea, so He has proven Himself abundantly able to meet the needs of so many in the storms of life. Be Still, My Soul was the favourite hymn of Eric Liddell, the gold medalist in the 1924 Olympics, who later went to China as a missionary, and ended his life in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. It also proved a personal blessing to me at the time of a long stay in the hospital for a double surgery. Have you found it a blessing too? Post a comment and let us know.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.

The boys’ choir Libra, of St. Philip’s Church in South London, has produced a haunting video of this hymn. It juxtaposes the audio with images of British servicemen from the Second World War, making the point of the song in a powerful way. I encourage you to take a few moments to listen to this memorable performance on YouTube.

(2) More from Isaac Watts
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is justly called “the Father of English Hymnody.” His approximately 600 hymns and paraphrases of the Psalms paved the way for Charles Wesley and others, beginning the Golden Age of English Hymnody (1700-1900). Here are two more of the songs he gave us: Come, We That Love the Lord, and Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed.

Notice the second stanza of the first hymn. It is not usually included in our hymnals, but it fits the next stanza logically. Watts had to confront many who thought only the Psalms should be sung in church, not newly written hymns. Further, the reference here to “pleasures” would have stunned many a staid Puritan in his day!

Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.

The sorrows of the mind
Be banished from this place!
Religion never was designed
To make our pleasures less.

Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly King
May speak their joys abroad.

Then let our songs abound,
And every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground
To fairer worlds on high.

And now for something completely different. Are you familiar with Sacred Harp, shaped note singing? (The “sacred harp” is the human voice. The shaped notes involve a form of music notation in which each tone of the scale is given a unique shape.) The genre has been traced back to music in the country parishes of England, in the eighteenth century. If you’ve never heard it before, it may be a little startling! But I personally find it has a haunting quality that is memorable. Singing is unaccompanied, and singers sit around the leader, with many of them beating time themselves.

Robert Lowry added a refrain, and turned the above into a jubilant gospel song, but Watts’s version, using the traditional tune St. Thomas, should not be abandoned. And speaking of gospel song arrangements of great hymns, I have dealt elsewhere with Ralph Hudson’s mutilation of Isaac Watts’s Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed?

Briefly, Hudson’s jaunty tune, with refrain, completely ignores the somber, penitent mood of the original hymn. (Notice the second to last stanza, not usually included. It connects logically to the one that follows.) Watts originally called the hymn Godly Sorrow Arising from the Sufferings of Christ. The text should be sung with reverent awe, and the traditional tune Martyrdom suits that well.

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While His dear cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.


Responses

  1. A wondrous hymn that has blessed me again and again. And it was interesting to read a little bit about the writer and the fact that it was a favourite of Eric Liddell.

    The music suits the lyrics perfectly. I don’t they’d have nearly the impact otherwise.

    Thanks for the link to the video of the boys’ choir singing it. It was beautifully put together.

  2. I always wondered what prompted the authors of these wonder hymns to write the lyrics with such meaning that they have lasted to this day. As I read these words of ” Be Still My Soul ” , Katharina must have been going through some circumstance in her life in order to capture exactly what I need to read and hear as I am going through a storm in my life 257 years after she wrote these wonder words. I pray that my faith will remain and that I too will have a joyful end, when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone. Thank You Katharina.

    • The more I study the lives of our hymn writers, the more I discover along the lines you mention: that they faced opportunities and challenges similar to my own, and their hymns were born out of those experiences–with an important plus. They also knew the Word; they were very knowledgeable of the Scriptures. Quite a few, such as Frances Havergal, also knew the original languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, and could interpret the Bible with skill. That gave their writings both a precision of biblical truth and the warmth of devotional insight. An unbeatable combination that is too often lacking in contemporary Christian music.

  3. […] In my opinion, Be Still, My Soul ranks as one of the finest hymns in the English language. For more about this hymn, see Today in 1697. […]

  4. For the Shape Note singing video, are they using the solfegio to introduce the hymn, perhaps as a learning technique?

    Also, Be Still My Soul was sung as a congregational song at my maternal grandparents’ funerals.

    • H-m-m… Regarding the beginning of the video, I wondered if it was something like that. But I’m no expert on shaped note singing. (My father knew the technique well, but he’s now with the Lord. Guess they don’t need shaped note books in heaven. :-) ) As to the other, I’ve seen many bloggers who talk about Katarina von Schlegel’s hymn being used at a family funeral. That’s fine. But I do hope that this happy marriage of a superb text to a classic tune will not suffer from the designation of “a funeral hymn.” Speaking personally, I need its message every day of my life.

  5. Mr. Cottrill, I just want to thank you for your wonderful website. As music director of a small Presbyterian church, I love using the old hymns and being able to inform our members about how different hymns came into being. This morning I was hoping to find out more about Katharine Schlagel and Be Still My Soul. Many times, when I am discouraged, I just sit down at the piano and play through my favorite old hymns. It is amazing that a song can reach through the ages and touch us right where we are! In this age of many churches going all contemporary and leaving the good old hymns behind, I try to find a nice blend of these. Our church was founded in 1789 and I like to tell people that hymns were contemporary when we were just getting started. In fact, our founding pastor, John Simpson, was largely responsible for using Isaac Watts hymns along with the Psalter. He had a little struggle with his church members over this, but persevered in teaching them the hymns Isaac Watts wrote. Anyway, we are working a church website and I’m hoping that people will be encouraged to check your website. It is just full of wonderful information. Have a wonderful day!

    • What a wonderfully encouraging note! Thanks so much. And you’re right in saying that “a song can reach through the ages and touch us right where we are.” There are a number of reasons for this. Two in particular. First, that the message of such hymns is fundamentally biblical. Even when the song doesn’t quote Scripture directly, if it conveys the truths and principles of God’s Word, then the Spirit of God can bless it and work through it. The second factor is the personal experience of the author in his/her walk with God. Hymns that most often touch our hearts are a living, vibrant testimony to the grace of God at work in the lives of His people. They ring true. We sense the sincerity and the integrity of the writer. God bless you as you continue to serve Him.

  6. […] reflective sentiments of Watts’ lyrics. Our little departure was that, encouraged by reading Robert Cottrill’s Wordwise Hymns blog, we dispensed with the chorus and used the tune ‘Martyrdom’. The hymnbook ‘The […]

    • My! Yes, I agree: Nathan Clark George does a beautiful job of the hymn. And his gentle, reflective style is precisely what’s needed. Thanks for connecting!

  7. Robert,
    We sang ‘Alas And Did’ to ‘martydom’ this morning, and I just wanted to acknowledge your suggestion.
    ‘The Hymnal’ features four verses to that tune, but I dropped the missing fourth verse back in on our powerpoint.
    Posted about it on my blog tonight and even found a nice acoustic rendition by a fellow named Nathan Clark George on youtube to post with it.

  8. Brother:
    Thank you for putting together the information on this website. I was doing a web search for information on the hymn: Be Still My Soul. Your effort has blessed me well this morning. The English choir was terrific.

    May the Lord bless you in your work to make the information on these powerful hymns more known to our present lost and wicked generation. Only looking to Christ for salvation will make the difference. I just finished reading a book on Eric Liddell’s life, “Pure Gold,” by McCasland. They sung this hymn at his funeral as you indicated.

    • Thanks for your encouraging words. Don’t think I mentioned it in the post, but I’m actually related to Eric Liddell…sort of. My wife’s niece’s husband’s grandmother is his daughter…or something like that. :-) But on a more serious note, “Be Still, My Soul,” is one of my favourite hymns. I need my soul “stilling” often!

  9. This has been my favorite hymn for a long time but I had never looked for any information about it until today. I don’t remember ever singing it in church growing up. I just happened upon it one day while looking through my hymnal. The words are so comforting. Thank you again for the video of the boys choir. It brought tears to my eyes. I’ve already told my daughters that I would like “Be Still My Soul” to be sung at my funeral. I almost wish I could be there! Thank you so much for your website.

    • Bless your heart! Thank you for your kind words. And I agree. I’ve been greatly blessed by the hymn, and consider it one of the finest in the English language. Are you familiar with Edith Cherry’s hymn, “We Rest on Thee”? It makes use of the same tune, and is another beautiful hymn, with an interesting history. You can find more information by clicking on my blog entry here.

  10. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  11. […] 25, 1748) Music: Marching to Zion, by Robert Lowry (b. Mar. 12, 1826; d. Nov. 25, 1899) Links: Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  12. In a culture where the clamor for fame and riches without accomplishment or self-sacrifice, Katharina’s hymn like a glittering jewel, reflecting the light of God’s Word and the love of Jesus, has endured and even today nourishes the soul of the weary. If there is any fame worth seeking, it would be that kind of fame that lives hundreds of years on in the hearts of brothers and sisters in Christ whom we have yet to even meet.

    Thanks for sponsoring and curating this site. You sir have undertaken a work that has blessed this brother.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. It’s been a delight to study this subject for about 50 years, but the blog has helped me to share my thoughts with thousands more. And “a glittering jewel reflecting the light of God’s Word”? Couldn’t have said it better. Be Still, My Soul belongs in the top rank of our hymns.

  13. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  14. “Be Still, My Soul” is most times printed as a three stanza hymn….but there was a different third verse making your third verse the fourth verse. When sung in context, the third and fourth verse were such a blessing to us in the loss of a dear friend in February 2012. Perhaps the addition of this verse will be a blessing to others who have lost a loved one:

    3. Be still, my soul, though dearest friends depart
    And all is darkened in the vale of tears;
    Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
    Who comes to soothe thy sorrows and thy fears.
    Be still, my soul; thy Jesus can repay
    From His own fullness, all He takes away.

    4. Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
    When we shall be forever with the Lord,
    When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
    Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
    Be still, my soul;
    when change and tears are past,
    All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

    • Thanks for your comments, and for recounting the blessing received from this wonderful hymn. In the Almanac section of the Wordwise Hymns blog, I was most concerned to mark the birth date of Katharina von Schlegel. But in a later article I discuss the full hymn–even quoting the stanza that was a special blessing to you. You can find that article here.

  15. […] Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake To guide the future, as He has the past. Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake; All now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below. –  Katharina von Schlegel […]

  16. Blessings and peace on this ministry of hymnody that enriches so many through education!


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