Martin Luther led the Protestant Reformation in Germany, beginning with the posting of his 95 Theses in 1517. By the time of his death in 1546, the Lutheran Church in Germany was strong—strong and zealous. However, as so often happens, that zeal cooled considerably over the next century. By the mid-1600s, the Lutheran Church in Germany was still quite correct doctrinally but cool with regard to zeal.
Philip Spener became the pastor of a Lutheran congregation in Frankfurt am Main in the mid-1600s, and effected a revival by fervent preaching that emphasized repentance, personal piety, and discipleship. He encouraged prayer and Bible study as a means to personal spiritual growth. He spelled out his five guiding principles in a document entitled Pia Desideria (Pious Desires). These included:
• The increased use of scripture
• Lay participation in small groups, emphasizing prayer and Bible study
• A balance of faith and actions
• An emphasis on a pious clergy
• Sermons that encourage an active faith
Not only did the church that Spener was serving in Frankfurt prosper, but a pietistic movement swept across Germany through his influence.
An enthusiastic member of Spener’s congregation was a young attorney, Johann Jakob Schutz, who not only encouraged Spener’s work but also wrote hymns. He wrote “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” in 1675, and published it in a collection of hymns that same year.
The hymn is usually sung to the tune, “Mit Freuden Zart” (“With great delight!”)—the perfect name for this joyful hymn.
Note the third verse, which emphasizes the presence of the Lord—a typical pietistic emphasis:
“The Lord is never far away,
But thru all grief distressing
An ever-present help and stay,
Our peace and joy and blessing.”
Schutz died in 1690 at the age of 50. This hymn is his most enduring legacy. An Oxford scholar, Frances Elizabeth Cox (1812-1897), translated this and many other German hymns into English. It was first published in English in 1841 in a collection entitled, “Sacred Hymns from the German.”
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan