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 them 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 Libera, 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.