Hymn Story

Be Still My Soul

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Often, in the midst of suffering, people look up and see the face of God.  That was true for Katharina von Schlegel, a Lutheran woman in Germany a century after Luther began the Reformation there.  Movements born in great passion often deteriorate over time as the fires wane and concern for “the way we have always done it” intensifies.  That was true of the Lutheran Church in Germany a century after its founding.

But churches that have gone cold and sterile are ripe for renewal, and that was true of the church in Germany.  Katharina was part of a pietistic movement—an emphasis on personal faith—that brought new life to the old body.

We don’t know much about Katharina.  She may have been the canoness of a women’s seminary—but we can’t be certain of that.

We do know that she wrote a number of hymns.  “Be Still My Soul” is the only one that has survived.  Katharina was inspired to write it when she read God’s promise in Psalm 46:10—”Be still and know that I am God”—and the Psalmists assurance, “(The Lord) is with us.  The God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:11).

These are promises that never grow old, because suffering is a fact of life.  No one is exempt.  Joseph Parker counsels, “Preach to the suffering, and you will never lack a congregation.  There is a broken heart in every pew.”  People need the hope that they find in Biblical promises like those that they find in the scriptures.  That is as true in the 21st century as it was in the 18th century.

This hymn survived only because of the work of a British woman, Jane Borthwick, who translated it into English a century after Katharina wrote it.  The book of Exodus tells of Aaron and Hur, who supported Moses’ raised arms so that Israel could defeat Amalek (Exodus 17:8ff.).  I like to think of Jane Borthwick as Katharina’s Aaron or Hur.

At some point, Katharina’s words were paired with the tune of “Finlandia” by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius—music that he didn’t compose until 1899-1900.  Sibelius conceived that music as a protest against Russian oppression—and a celebration of Finnish history.  The music is rousing and tempestuous until the final movement, where it calms and becomes “The Finlandia Hymn.”  It is this “Finlandia Hymn” that was paired with Katharina’s poetry to produce this hymn.

God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  The Psalmist promises, “(The Lord) is with us.  The God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalm 46:11).  Those who believe these words find strength in the faith that undergirds them.  As the prophet says elsewhere,

“Those who wait for (the Lord) will renew their strength.

They will mount up with wings like eagles.

They will run, and not be weary.

They will walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan