We are living in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. China is getting adventurous in the South China Sea, Russia has annexed part of the Ukraine after signing a treaty to protect its territorial integrity, the Middle East is in flames, and terrorism is being exported from the region into Europe and soon quite possibly the U.S.
Then there are the domestic issues: conflict on college campuses, a historically low labor force participation rate despite the falling unemployment rate, national and personal indebtedness, on and on and on.
And this week is Thanksgiving. For many of us I suspect, it’s hard to be thankful. And that is why we need the story of Martin Rinkart.
Early Life and Career
Martin Rinkart was born on April 23, 1586, in Eilenburg, Saxony, a Lutheran state within the Holy Roman Empire. His father Georg was a cooper, a craftsman who made barrels. Martin learned Latin in his home town, and then in 1601 became a foundation scholar and chorister at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. His scholarship enabled him to go on to the University of Leipzig the following year where he began his studies of theology.
In 1610, Martin applied for the position of deacon in his home town of Eilenburg. He went before the city council, but was rejected for the position due to the opposition of the church’s Superintendent. His official reason for opposing Rinkart was that he was a better musician than theologian, though it seems likely he did not want a rival who was both from the town and thought for himself.
Rinkart then applied for a position as a teacher at the school in Eisleben, Luther’s home town. He was given the position and also acted as cantor for the church of St. Nicholas in town. Within a year he was given the position of deacon in St. Anne’s Church, also in Eisleben, which was the first church to officially adopt Protestantism about a century earlier. Then in 1613, he became pastor at Erdeborn and Lütjendorf near Eisleben.
Amid all his travelling and other duties, Rinkart found time to write. He wrote a series of seven dramas inspired by the hundred-year anniversary of the Reformation. Three were published in 1613, 1618, and 1623, and we know at least two were performed publicly. He was also named poet laureate in 1614, and wrote a large number of books as well as hymns and cantatas. Some of his books have been lost; others survive only in a single copy.
Rinkart completed his Master’s degree in Theology in 1616, and then was finally offered the position of archdeacon in his home town in 1617. He would spend the rest of his life there.
The year after he took his position in Eilenburg, the Thirty Years’ War began.
The Thirty Years’ War
The Thirty Years’ War is still remembered to this day as the most destructive war ever fought in Germany, and that includes World Wars I and II. It featured gunpowder armies much larger than those seen in the pre-gunpowder world, and these armies tried to live off the land by plundering since there were no systems in place to supply and pay them. You can’t have multiple armies plundering a territory for thirty years without it doing an unbelievable and nearly irrecoverable amount of damage.
The war began as a conflict over religion in the nearby kingdom of Bohemia, but rapidly drew in almost all the countries of Europe. In principal, it was primarily a battle between the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and his allies, and the Lutheran princes in the Empire and their allies. In practice, it was far messier than that: for example, the Catholic Emperor had a ruthless Protestant general named Albrecht von Wallenstein, and the Protestant princes were funded by Catholic France.
Along with Germany and Bohemia, the war also drew in the Swedes and Danes on the side of the German Lutherans, and Spain on the side of the Emperor; the Dutch Republic was fighting for independence from Spain, so they were also drawn in; and France got involved militarily as a chance to take down Spain, an old rival ruled by the Habsburg family. The war was fought in Europe but in the Americas and in the Indian Ocean as well.
Eilenburg and the Thirty Years’ War
Eilenburg was not immune to the effects of the war. It was a walled city, and so it became a place of refuge for people fleeing the violence. As troops came through the area, Rinkart and others were forced to quarter them in their houses, and their goods were regularly plundered by these soldiers. Not surprisingly, food was often scarce.
Then in 1637 plague arrived in the overcrowded city. Of the four clergy in the Eilenburg, the Superintendent fled the city, and the other two pastors soon succumbed to the disease. Rinkart was left alone to tend the sick and see to the burial of those who died. He performed up to fifty funerals per day, in all totaling over 4,480, including his wife’s. Then the death toll got too high for individual funerals and trenches were dug for mass burials. The death toll was ultimately around 8,000.
After the plague came famine. Accounts from Eilenburg say that the famine was so severe that 30 or 40 people would fight in the streets over a dead cat or crow. The Burgomeister and Rinkart did their best to feed the people. Rinkart gave so much charity that he was forced to mortgage several years of his income just to feed and clothe his own children.
Then the Swedes came. Rinkart had saved the city once before from the Swedish army in 1637; now in the wake of the famine in 1639 they were back, demanding 30,000 florins as “tribute” from the city. Rinkart again went out to entreat them to lower their demands, but the Swedish general refused. Rinkart turned to the townspeople who had followed him out and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.” He fell to his knees and began praying so earnestly that the general relented and asked for only 2,000 florins.
The war would drag on another 11 years. Rinkart’s services had not made the town’s leaders more grateful; they harassed him constantly, frequently about financial matters caused by his efforts to feed the starving people in the city. When peace finally came in 1648, Rinkart was exhausted and prematurely aged. He died the following year.
Rinkart the Hymn Writer
Given the difficulties of his life, it is surprising that the hymns that Rinkart penned were full of praise and trust in God even when they were speaking of the troubles that afflicted Germany. His best known hymn, written c.1636 in the middle of the war, was intended as a table prayer; we know it as the popular Thanksgiving hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God”:
Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.
Think about this hymn in the context of Rinkart’s life. Perhaps the very difficulty of his circumstances led him to look to God alone for help, and yet he still found the faith to trust in God and to be grateful to him for his blessings. If in the midst of horrendously devastating war, plague, famine, and death, Rinkart could find the faith to sing his thanks to God, how much more should we, who are living in much better circumstances rejoice in the goodness of God that has blessed us so abundantly.
Do you have a discipline of giving thanks? If so, would you share it with a brother or sister in Christ? And if not, see Romans 1:21—how does humanity’s descent into depravity begin?