The Battle Hymn of the Reformation
Among his voluminous works, Luther penned at least 36 hymns. His "A Mighty Fortress is our God" is easily the most popular and is often described as the "battle hymn of the Reformation."
Based on Scripture
The words are a loose paraphrase of Psalm 46 and celebrate the sovereign power of God over every earthly and spiritual power, and focus on the certain hope we have in Him because of Christ.
After its publication, this hymn became extremely popular across Reformed Europe. As Louis Benson points out:
"It was … the Marseillaise of the Reformation. It was sung at Augsburg during the Diet, and in all the churches of Saxony, often against the protest of the priest. It was sung in the streets; and, so heard, comforted the hearts of Melanchthon, Jonas, and Cruciger, as they entered Weimar, when banished from Wittenberg in 1547. It was sung by poor Protestant emigrants on their way into exile, and by martyrs at their death. It is woven into the web of the history of Reformation times, and it became the true national hymn of Protestant Germany."
Visitors to Wittenberg will note the public commemoration of Luther's hymn where the first line of the lyrics are engraved on the base of a Luther monument and laced around the dome of the Castle Church.
This popular hymn was sung at the funeral for former President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969).
Circumstances of Hymn
According to Tim Challies, there are at least 7 documented theories on the time and circumstances in which the hymn was written.
It is Louis Benson's opinion, shared with several other historians, that the most likely story is that it was written in October 1527 as the plague was approaching. The evidence for this date is the printing history surrounding it (no copies beforehand, and a growing number of copies afterwards).
Origin of the Tune
There is debate about where the tune came from. It was formerly believed to have been borrowed by Luther, perhaps from an old Gregorian melody. More recently, however, scholars are inclined to believe that Luther wrote it himself. (The story that the tune came from a tavern song that was popular in Luther’s day is the result of a misunderstanding of German musical terminology).
Translation into English
Many attempts have been made in order to translate this hymn into English. The two most enduring are Thomas Carlyle’s “A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still” and – the more popular –Frederic Henry Hedge’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing; Our shelter He, amid the flood Of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow’r are great, And, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, The Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth is His name, From age to age the same, And He must win the battle.
And tho’ this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us; We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim — We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly pow’rs — No thanks to them — abideth: The Spirit and the gifts are ours Thro’ Him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also; The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.