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Christian Singers Of Germany by Catherine Winkworth

CHAPTER VII. AN INTERVAL. A.D. 1560-1616.

The later years of the sixteenth and the opening of the seventeenth century are by no means so rich in hymn-writers as the era of the Reformation itself. Not that there was any diminution in the quantity of religious poetry, but the quality grew much poorer and thinner, and it fell chiefly into the hands of professional authors, instead of springing up all over the country out of the heart of the people. Still this period, too, has some very good and fine hymns, but a marked change of tone is perceptible in most of them; they are no longer filled with the joyful welcome of a new day, they more often lament the wickedness of the age, and anticipate coming evil times or the end of the world itself. And yet that age, so far from being at all particularly wicked or calamitous, was a time on the whole of peace and prosperity. Pestilences did indeed visit Germany at intervals, as in 1563 and 1597, but this was no new thing; such outbreaks occur periodically throughout the previous centuries.

Progress of Germany

In other respects Germany was making rapid progress, both material and mental. In the course of a few years after the peace of Passau, the Reformed religion had spread over more than three-fourths of the country, including all the most populous and active regions; while in literature so great a change had taken place, that whereas a work of the fifteenth century seems far away from us both in thought and language, a work from the latter half of the sixteenth is written nearly in the same German that is used now, and breathes comparatively the spirit of modern life. The great idea that every man is personally responsible for his belief and his actions to God Himself, was making itself felt in every field, breaking up old organizations and the orderly but rigid routine of mediaeval life prompting to new enterprises, inspiring men with courage to bear imprisonment, exile, or death for their faith. But it had brought its dangers and difficulties too, not only in the actual persecutions and wars which, though on a very limited scale, existed throughout this period until they culminated in the great struggle of the Thirty Years' War; but still more in an excessive individualism which rendered common action almost impossible. For the new mode of thought gave rise to mental conflicts and doubts and scruples of conscience, for which there was no longer the easy resolution of an authoritative decision of Church or priest, and which saddened the lives of many whom we should not now call specially religious persons; and it brought endless disputes on doctrinal questions among the professors of the evangelical faith themselves. Over the temporary compromise between the Romanist and Protestant religions, known as |the Interim;| over every shade of more or less Calvinistic views of the Atonement and the Sacraments, they quarrelled, not in words only but deeds: men were deprived of their offices or salaries, banished from one State to another, or excluded from the Lord's Supper and from the privilege of sponsorship. The political circumstances of the day bore the same impress of lack of unity. Germany was broken up into a multitude of little States, without a real centre of authority, and with no clearly defined relations between the princes and people within each State. Against all this division was ranged the growing power of the Order of the Jesuits on the religious side, and of the House of Hapsburg on the political; two powers that indeed represented unity, but unity springing from and leading back to despotism, and which soon formed a close and mighty alliance. It might well be that to thoughtful men the future looked dark.

Out of this time we choose Ambrose Lobwasser, Bartholomew Ringwaldt, Selnecker, and Helmboldt as the men who best represent its religious poetry. Lobwasser was a professor of jurisprudence at Königsberg, and had strong leanings to the Calvinistic Church, though not actually belonging to it. He made a complete translation of the French Psalter of Marot and Beza, which was published with Goudimel's melodies in 1573, and went through many subsequent editions. It is noticeable chiefly because it long remained the recognised psalter, like Sternhold and Hopkins with us, and was the only hymn-book admitted to use in public worship by the Calvinistic churches. Otherwise its poetical merits are very small; it does not rise above the level of a sort of rhymed prose, and it furnished an unfortunate model for a flood of very prosaic rhymed paraphrases of doctrinal statements or passages of Scripture, which become wonderfully numerous at this time.

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