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Hymns for a Pandemic: A Brief Historical Introduction

Centuries before 2020’s novel coronavirus, COVID-19, Christians around the world responded to plagues, pandemics, uncertainty, and sin with faith in God’s presence and care—a faith expressed in many theologically rich hymns that can remind modern believers of God’s faithfulness.

Hymn writers throughout history have always been inspired by the cultural, social, theological, and political issues of their day. The notion that a hymn is created out of some celestial ether untouched by human reality does not hold up under scrutiny. Hymn writing and singing are incarnational acts that, at their best, are attempts to join the heavenly voices that are always singing in anticipation of our arrival (Rev. 5:8–14) with our own voices in the midst of our current struggles. No matter how small the earthly gathering or, as in these days, how dispersed, there is hope that we are in perpetual antiphonal dialogue with our celestial choral counterparts.  

We also are in dialogue with the saints who have gone before us—those who have borne witness to the faith in all times and places. Thus, looking at some examples of how our forebears sang in the face of earlier pandemics could be both enlightening and encouraging.  

A literary complement might be to (re)read The Plague (1947) by the French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus. Though one may have a distinct feeling of déjà vu as the process described in the novel unfolds, history does not exactly repeat itself. I find The Plague enlightening and amazingly descriptive of our current reality, but I still have to do some “translation” for today. Though the city of Oran was quarantined, the plague continued to run its course within the city. An overflow crowd congregated in the church to hear the priest’s sermons, and people gathered at bars and restaurants. The scientific knowledge of that day did not appreciate the concept of social distancing, at least not in the same way we are coming to understand it today. 

As you read through the hymns provided, you might also need to do some translation. “Pandemic,” while a reality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was not a word. Unlike Christians of earlier generations, most churchgoers today have (for very good reasons) suspended gathering as congregations. In hymns written in those times, “plague” is the key word. “Disease” might refer to an actual personal illness, but it seems to primarily describe a personal spiritual condition. “Plague” was used in this more personal sense too, but it often had a more universal usage as well. It is the latter that is of interest here.  

There are some examples where the use of “plague” in a hymn can be matched to a specific historical situation (Exs. 1., 7., 8.), but more often than not the hymnwriter seemed to be responding to a persistent, chronic condition of society. Without the aid of modern medical research, even a cursory historical examination of plagues throughout history reveals that these pandemics were lengthy, devastating, and recurrent (See Exs. 3., 4., 9., and 10.). HIV/AIDS, SARS, and probably our current COVID-19 pandemics are more manageable. In that sense, we may find hope in that our current COVID-19 pandemic, while extremely lamentable, may not last as long or result in a proportional loss of life as in previous centuries. 

Another hazard of reading these hymns is a broad theological assumption prevalent then and (regrettably) to some degree now that pandemics are God’s punishment for a sinful humanity  when instead God walks with us through the “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4). I eliminated many hymns that held this punishment perspective because I do not find this to be a redeeming or hopeful theological response to a suffering world. This perspective still echoes throughout some of these hymns (See especially 7., a hymn by Charles Wesley). On the other hand, several hymns, especially those based in the psalter, demonstrate our desire to find existential meaning in scripture (See examples 4., 5., and 6., by Isaac Watts, and 10., by John Ryland). This is a spiritual practice that continues to be meaningful. 

Then there are the totally inexplicable hymns, such as Martin Rinckhart’s “Now Thank We All Our God,” (Ex. 2.) which, while composed in the midst of the deadly Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), contains one of the most exuberant doxological messages in hymnic history. This hymn is a reaffirmation of our faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. 

So examine these texts (you could even locate a familiar tune to sing the words) and find meaning in the promise that the God of those days is also the God of these days. Sing in prayer for and solidarity with those who suffer today—from physical suffering and death as a result of COVID-19, from the social loss of relationships and loneliness, and from the economic devastation that has already begun and is likely to continue for some time. Sing in gratitude for dedicated medical workers, the advanced scientific knowledge that is available to us, and the countless random acts of neighborly love that we hear about each day. Above all, sing in the hope of the resurrection. 

In Grief and Fear to Thee, O Lord

William Bullock (1798–1874), Songs of the Church (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1854). For background, visit here.  

1.  In grief and fear, to thee, O Lord, 
     
We now for succor fly, 
     
Thine awful judgments are abroad, 
     O shield us, lest we die! 
2.  The fell disease on every side 
     Walks forth with tainted breath; 
     
And pestilence, with rapid stride, 
     
Bestrews the land with death. 
3.  O look with pity on the scene 
     
Of sadness and of dread, 
     
And let thine angel stand between 
     
The living and the dead! 
4.  With contrite hearts to thee, our King, 
     We turn, who oft have strayed; 
     Accept the sacrifice we bring 
     And let the plague be stayed. 


Now Thank We All Our God (Nun danket alle Gott)

Martin Rinckhart (1586–1649), tr. Catherine Winkworth (1827–1878). Published in Johann Crüger, Praxis Pietaties Melica (1647) and probably in Rinckhart’s Jesu Hertz-Büchlein (1636); tr. in Winkworth’s Lyra Germanica II (1858). 

Popularly called the “German Te Deum,” this hymn may have originated as a domestic hymn for table grace. Rather than being based on the fourth-century Te Deum, Rinckhart based first two stanzas on Martin Luther’s translation of Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 50:22–24: “Now therefore bless ye the God of all, which only doeth wondrous things every where, which exalteth our days from the womb, and dealeth with us according to his mercy. He grants us joyfulness of heart, and that peace may be in our days in Israel for ever: That he would confirm his mercy with us, and deliver us at his time!” (KJV). It was written during plague and famine that accompanied the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) in central Europe, including Eilenburg, Saxony, where Rinckhart was ministering under the most dire of conditions. The second half of stanza two may be an oblique reference to this situation. The third stanza is a metrical version of the trinitarian doxology. 

1.  Now thank we all our God
     with heart and hands and voices,
     who wondrous things has done,
     in whom his world rejoices;
     who from our mothers' arms
     has blessed us on our way
     with countless gifts of love,
     and still is ours today.
2.  O may this bounteous God
     through all our life be near us,
     with ever joyful hearts
     and blessed peace to cheer us,
     to keep us in his grace,
     and guide us when perplexed,
     and free us from all ills
     of this world in the next.
3.  All praise and thanks to God
     the Father now be given,
     the Son and Spirit blest,
     who reign in highest heaven
     the one eternal God,
     whom heaven and earth adore;
     for thus it was, is now,
     and shall be evermore. 


Come to Thy Temple Here on Earth (Zieh ein zu deine Toren)

Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676); tr. 1855 by Catherine Winkworth (1827–1878). Selected stanzas from sixteen original. Written during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and published as a hymn for Whitsuntide (the weeks following Pentecost). ​

1.  Come to Thy temple here on earth, 
     Be Thou my spirit's guest, 
     Who givest us of mortal birth 
     A second birth more blest; 
     Spirit beloved, Thou mighty Lord, 
     Who with the Father and the Son 
     Reignest upon an equal throne, 
     Art equally adored! 
2.  Thou art the Spirit who dost teach 
     To pray aright, for all 
     Our prayers are heard if Thou
     beseech, 

     Thy songs have sweetest fall. 
     They soar on tireless wings to heaven, 
     They fail not from before God's throne, 
     Till all His goodness we have known 
     By whom all help is given. 
3.  On Thee is all this world upstaid, 
     And in Thy hands doth rest; 
     And Thou canst wayward hearts
     persuade 

     To turn as seems Thee best:
     Oh therefore give Thy love and peace, 
     That they may join in strongest bands 
     Long parted foes, and through our
     lands 

     These sad divisions cease. 
4.  Thou art the true, the only Source 
     Whence concord comes to men; 
     Oh that Thy power might have free
     course 

     And bring us peace again! 
     Oh hear, and stem this mighty flood 
     That o'er us death and sorrow
     spreads; 

     Alas! each day afresh it sheds 
     Like water human blood. 
5.  Arise and make an end of all 
     Our heartache, and our pain; 
     Thy wandering flock at last recall 
     And grant them joy again; 
     To peace and wealth the land restore,
     Wasted with fire or plague or sword; 
     Come to Thy ruined churches, Lord, 
     And bid them bloom once more! 
  


When We Are Raised from Deep Distress

Isaac Watts (1674–1748), Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707). Isaiah 38:9 ff.—Sickness and Recovery 
 
While this hymn appears after the Great Plague of London (1665–66), this plague would have been well in mind during Isaac Watts’s earlier years, and indeed, plagues continued throughout the eighteenth century in Europe. Watts’s later Psalms of David, Imitated (1719) may have been influenced by perpetual disease and plagues (see examples from Psalms 89 and 90 below). It is interesting to note that this hymn  appears in collections in London throughout the nineteenth century, when cholera pandemics were prevalent in various parts of the British Empire, including parts of Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. In 1854, 23,000 people died from cholera in Great Britain.  

1.  When we are raised from deep
     distress, 
     Our God deserves a song; 
     We take a pattern of our praise 
     From Hezekiah’s tongue. 
2.  The gate of the devouring grave 
     Are opened wide in vain; 
     If he that holds the keys of death, 
     Commands them fast again. 
3.  Pains of the flesh are wont t’abuse 
     Our minds with slavish fears:—  
     “Our days are past, and we shall lose 
     The remnant of our years.”  
4.  We chatter, with a swallow’s voice, 
     Or like a dove we mourn; 
     With bitterness, instead of joys, 
     Afflicted and forlorn. 
5.  Jehovah speaks the healing word, 
     
And no disease withstands; 
     
Fevers and plagues obey the Lord, 
     
And fly at his commands. 
6.  If half the strings of life should break, 
     He can our frame restore; 
     He casts our sins behind his back, 
     and they are found no more. 


He That Hath Made His Refuge God

Isaac Watts (1674–1748), Psalms of David, Imitated (1719). Psalm 91—Safety in public diseases and dangers  

1.  They, that have made their refuge
     God, 
     Shall find a most secure abode, 
     Shall walk all day beneath his shade, 
     And there at night shall rest his head. 
2.  Then will I say, “My God, thy power 
     Shall be my fortress and my tower; 
     I, that am formed of feeble dust, 
     Make thine almighty arm my trust.” 
3.  Thrice happy man! thy Maker’s care 
     Shall keep thee from the
     fowler’s snare; 
     Satan the fowler, who betrays 
     Unguarded souls a thousand ways. 
4.  Just as a hen protects her brood, 
     From birds of prey that seek their
     blood, 
     Under her feathers, so the Lord 
     Makes his own arm his people’s guard. 
5.  If burning beams of noon conspire 
     To dart a pestilential fire, 
     God is their life; his wings are spread, 
     To shield them with a healthful shade. 
6.  If vapors with malignant breath 
     Rise thick, and scatter midnight death, 
     Isr’el is safe; The poisoned air 
     Grows pure, if Isr’el’s God be there. 
7.  What though a thousand at thy side, 
     At thy right hand ten thousand died, 
     Thy God his chosen people saves 
     Amongst the dead, amidst the graves. 
8.  So when he send his angel down 
     To make his wrath in Egypt known; 
     And slew their sons, his careful eye 
     Passed all the doors of Jacob by. 
9.   But if the fire, or plague, or sword, 
     Receive commission from the Lord 
     To strike his saints among the rest: 
     Their very pains and deaths are blest. 
10.  The sword, the pestilence, or fire, 
       Shall but fulfil their best desire; 
       From sins and sorrows set them free, 
       And being thy children, Lord, to thee. 


Remember, Lord, Our Mortal State

Isaac Watts (1674–1748); Psalms of David, Imitated (1719). Psalm 89:47ff. Mortality and Hope—A Funeral Psalm 
 
“Remember how short my time is: wherefore hast thou made all men in vain? What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave?” (Psalm 89:47–48, KJV). Watts’s reference to “whole nations [that] die” seems to extend beyond the scope of a single funeral observance. 

1.  Remember, Lord, our mortal state, 
     How frail our life! how short the date! 
     
Where is the man that draws
     his breath 
     Safe from disease, secure from death? 
2.  Lord, while we see whole nations die, 
     
Our flesh and sense repine and cry, 
     
“Must death for ever rage and reign? 
     
Or hast thou made mankind in vain? 
3.  Where is thy promise to the just? 
     Are not thy servants turned to dust?” 
     
But faith forbids these mournful sighs, 
     
And sees the sleeping dust arise.
4.  That glorious hour, that dreadful day, 
     Wipes the reproach of saints away, 
     And clears the honor of thy word; 
     Awake, our souls, and bless the Lord. 


Righteous Lord, Thy People Spare

Charles Wesley (1707–1788), Hymns Occasioned by the Earthquake, March 8, 1750, Part 2 (London: Strahan, 1750). (For background, visit here.) 

1.  Righteous Lord, Thy people spare! 
     Lo! We turn at last to Thee, 
     Humbly the correction bear 
     Of our past iniquity, 
     Own the cause of our distress, 
     Mournfully our sins confess. 
2.  We Thy judgments have abhorred, 
     We Thy covenant have broke, 
     Daringly denied our Lord, 
     Cast away His easy yoke, 
     Would not cast our sins away, 
     Would not know our gracious day. 
3.   Therefore is the plague begun, 
     Therefore doth it still proceed, 
     Wrath divine by means unknown, 
     Wrath divine hath done the deed, 
     Made the stalls and pastures void, 
     God our cattle hath destroyed. 
4.  Heavier woes He keeps in store, 
     If we still refuse to turn, 
     Dare His anger’s utmost power, 
     All His lingering pity scorn; 
     But beneath Thy hand we bow, 
     Stay Thy plague, and save us now. 
5.  Jesu, save us from our sins, 
     Save us from our plague of heart; 
     All of unbelief convince, 
     All unto Thyself convert; 
     Let our sin-sick spirits find 
     Thee the healer of mankind. 
6.  No delight thy goodness hath 
     In the death of him who dies; 
     Grant us then the living faith, 
     Faith that on Thy blood relies, 
     Faith that all Thy grace receives, 
     Faith that all Thy fullness gives. 

Stand th’ Omnipotent Decree

Charles Wesley (1707–1788); Hymns for the Year (1756); For the Fast-day, Feb. 6, held as a day of humiliation arising mainly out of a dread invasion by the French (see * below). Describing the Judgment. 

1.  Stand, th' Omnipotent decree,
     Jehovah's will be done!
     Nature's end we wait to see,
     And hear her final groan.
     Let this earth dissolve, and blend
     In death the wicked and the just;
     Let those pond'rous orbs descend,
     And grind us into dust.
2.  Rests secure the righteous man;
     At his Redeemer's beck,
     Sure t' emerge and rise again,
     And mount above the wreck;
     Lo! the heavenly spirit towers
     Like flames o'er nature's funeral pyre;
     Triumphs in immortal powers,
     And claps his wings of fire.
3.  Nothing that the just to lose
     By worlds on worlds destroyed;
     Far beneath his feet he views,
     With smiles, the flaming void;
     Sees this universe renewed--
     The grand millennial reign begun;
     Shouts, with all the sons of God, 
     Around the eternal throne.
4.  Resting in this glorious hope,
     To be at last restored,
     Yield we now our bodies up
     To earthquake, plague, or sword;
     Listening for the call divine,
     The latest trumpet of the seven,
     Soon our soul and form shall join,
     And both fly up to heaven.

*John Julian states that this line “refers in the earthquake to the great earthquake which demolished the city of Lisbon on Nov. 1, 1755; the plague to the terrible mortality among the cattle which had been prevailing in various parts of England; and the sword to the invasion which was feared from France” (Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology, p. 1086). 

Sing Hallelujah; Sing

James Montgomery (1771–1854). The exact date of this hymn is not known, but the experience of repeated pandemics in the eighteenth century and controversial quarantine measures in the nineteenth century (see the Quarantine Act of 1825, aimed at stemming yellow fever, cholera, and plague) made sickness a pervasive concern. 

1.  Sing Hallelujah; sing
     Glory to God alone!
     Bring your oblations, bring
     Thank-offerings to the throne;
     Take words of joy, of comfort take,
     Awake to love, to life awake.
2.  The Lord put forth His hand,
     He touch'd us and we died;
     Vengeance went through the land,
     But mercy walk'd beside;
     He heard our prayers; He saw our
     tears,
     And stay'd the plague, and quell'd our
     fears.
3.  What shall we give to Thee?
     O Thou, whose purer eyes
     Behold iniquity
     In man's best sacrifice?
     Ourselves we give, but rest our claim
     On Christ, and know none other Name.
4.  For Jesus' sake forgive
     Thy people, Lord, and spare,
     To Him and Thee to live,
     For Thine and His we are;
     Thy quickening Spirit gave us breath,
     Thy Son, by death, has conquer'd
     death.


Sovereign
 Ruler of the Skies

John Ryland (1753–1825), 1777 

Guidance, Peace, and Security in God;  
Psalm 31:15: “My times are in thy hand: deliver me from the hand of mine enemies, and from them that persecute me” (KJV). 
Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (KJV). 

Eighteenth-century England lived in fear of pandemics from continental Europe (1709–1720; 1742–1760; 1768–1886). England was affected most likely by disease brought in by imported cattle. Ryland’s free paraphrase of portions of Psalm 31 and 34 was written in the middle of the third pandemic wave. 

1.  Sovereign ruler of the skies,
     Ever gracious, ever wise,
     All our times are in Thy hand,
     All events at Thy command.
2.  He that formed us in the womb,
     He shall guide us to the tomb;
     All our ways shall ever be
     Ordered by His wise decree.
3.  He that formed me in the womb,
     He shall guide me to the tomb;
     All my times shall ever be
     Ordered by His wise decree.
4.  Times of sickness, times of health,
     Times of penury and wealth;
     Times of trial and of grief,
     Time of triumph and relief.
5.  Times the tempter's power to prove,
     Times to taste a Savior's love:
     All must come, and last and end,
     As shall please my heavenly Friend.
6.  Plagues and deaths around me fly,
     Till He bids I cannot die:
     Not a single shaft can hit
     Till the God of love thinks fit. 

 

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