As we celebrate the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany this Sunday, we will sing familiar hymns, but one stands out. Our processional hymn, Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, is a favorite across many denominations. The text, by Joachim Neander (1650-1680), is an enthusiastic song of praise that has stood the test of time and still retains its power when translated into different languages (some hymns are not translated nearly so well). Neander’s personal story reminds me of St. Augustine in that it gives the impression of a young person enthralled with worldly success and pleasures who eventually writes powerfully in support of faith. Neander’s turning point supposedly came when attending church one Sunday with some friends. Their initial purpose had been to find fault with the preaching and amuse themselves by making light of it. However, rather than finding the minister to be an object of ridicule, Neander’s heart was moved, and a spiritual conversion took place. The Pietist minister who spoke that day, Theodore Under-Eyck (1635-1693), was a dedicated pastor and theologian of the Reformed Church in Germany. As an aside, the Pietist movement also made its way to the Lutheran Church where it greatly influenced the life and music of J. S. Bach (1685-1750) and his contemporaries. To give context, German Pietism has been likened to English Methodism in its passionate and evangelical nature.
To summarize a long story, by the 1670s, Neander had assumed teaching responsibilities made available to him by his university education and began tutoring private pupils and was also made Rector (akin to headmaster) of a Latin school. Never an ordained minister, Neander eventually did preach and preside over services as assistant to Under-Eyck, but died (aged 30 years) before he could branch out to serve a church on his own. He did experience several conflicts due to his fiery nature. There is a possibly spurious story of Neander writing some of his famous hymns in a cave while being suspended for 14 days due to a conflict with the Latin school administration!
In his short life, Neander secured a reputation for himself as the foremost hymnist of the German Reformed Church and as a Calvinist teacher and theologian. He loved nature thanks to an extended stay at the University of Heidelberg, and one can see this love in his writings. Consider the lyrics of the fourth stanza of Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, and think of how these words came from a sincere spirit of conversion and a desire to educate and shepherd God’s people.
“Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him!
All that hath life and breath come now with praises before him!
Let the amen sound from his people again;
gladly for ever adore him.”