Gustavus Adolphus Battle Song Story
Out of the heroic struggles of the Thirty Years’ War, which saved for the world the fruit of the sixteenth-century Reformation, there stands forth one gigantic son of the Vikings, the noble Gustavus Adolphus, king of Sweden.
The hymn was written to commemorate the victory of the Protestant armies under Gustavus Adolphus on the field of Leipzig, September 17, 1631.
The authorship is somewhat uncertain. It is popularly ascribed to King Gustavus Adolphus himself. There are good authorities who say that his chaplain, Jacob Fabricius, was the real author.
Still others, and with the weight of evidence in their favor, say that the author was Johann Michael Altenberg, a Lutheran pastor, who was compelled to flee from his home during the Thirty Years’ War.
While at Erfurt he wrote this hymn to celebrate the victory of the Swedish king and his army over Roman Catholic forces at Leipzig. Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, and commander was so taken with it that he used it constantly and ordered it to be sung before every battle thereafter. This accounts for the title and the accredited authorship. He made it his own.
The oldest form of the hymn is published as a pamphlet, which appeared shortly after the battle of Lutzen. A copy of this pamphlet is to be found in the Royal Library in Berlin and another in the Totvh Library in Hamburg.
We are told that on the morning of November 16, 1632, King Gustavus Adolphus’ forces engaged Wallenstein’s army in the decisive battle of Lutzen. Early in the morning the king summoned his court preacher, Fabricius, and directed him to hold a service of prayer for the whole army.
While a thick mist still covered the field the king’s battle hymn was sung. Gustavus then gave the watchword for the fight — ”God with us” — rode before the army to encourage his soldiers and commanded that as the troops advanced the trumpets should play ”Ein Feste Burg” and “Es woll uns Gott gnadig sein.”
The battle was fiercely fought, the king falling, but victory came and evangelical liberty was assured and sealed by the blood of the martyred Swedish king. Because of the use of this hymn on the morning of his death, it is often called ‘The Swan Song of King Gustavus Adolphus.”
The prayer which the king uttered that morning has been preserved. It was his usual battle prayer, and embraced the following brief sentences: “O Lord Jesus Christ, bless our armies and this day’s battle, for the glory of Thy holy name! Amen.”
Uttering the battle cry, “God with us!” he fought till he fell from his charger in the front of his valiant troops, when from the lips of the dying king came these words, “I seal with my blood the liberty and religion of the German nation.” It was the heroic and worthy ending of a martyr, an incident which adds imperishable interest to the hymn.
Well has Frederick Saunders said: “What struggles of soul have some of these hymns not witnessed, in what strange and stirring scenes have they not mingled! How has their melody and sweet inspiration brought solace to sorrow, and lent ecstasy to spiritual joy! Like the words of the Holy Book, they linger in the memory; and, in the hours of despondency and gloom, how often have they lifted us up from the earthliness of our being, and also imparted even to the sick and dying wondrous consolation.”
How we should seek to know the origin and enter into the spirit of the hymns we sing!
Concerning Gustavus Adolphus’ hymn we might add that it is published in the Swedish hymn book of 1819, a book in extensive use both in Sweden and America and there ascribed to the king himself.
In the Swedish Lutheran churches in this country, it is invariably sung at Reformation festivals and also at Gustavus Adolphus Day (November 6) celebrations. It is also in very general use in all Lutheran churches in this country and increasing in popularity and use every year.
It was sung at the dedication of the Gustavus Adolphus Chapel at Liitzen on November 6, 1907. This chapel was the gift of Conrad Oscar Ekman, of Sweden, to the city of Liitzen.
It stands on the spot which tradition points out as the place where the great king fell and where “Schwedenstein” was placed. At the dedication, there were present representatives of the Church in Germany, Sweden, Finland, and America, officially speaking for the followers of Luther and Gustavus Adolphus in those lands.
It was a great occasion and a high tribute to the man who fell there and whose favorite melody rang out to honor the man who had found strengthening for his faith in the rugged words of the old battle song, which had aided in bringing to a successful issue the terrors of the Thirty Years’ Wax.
Whether German or Swede may claim this hymn is a question. They both rightly own it. It is a general favorite in Germany. Every Sunday in the home of the great German Lutheran pietist, Philip Jacob Spener, this hymn was sung.
It is regularly used at the meetings of the Gustavus Adolphus Union, an association organized for the express purpose of helping Protestant Churches in Roman Catholic countries. This would seem to be an eminently appropriate use of this hymn so closely associated with the Protestant struggle and the Protestant
The hymn has been translated into many languages and is in wide use. There are several English translations, the most generally used of which is the one we have given above from the pen of Miss Winkworth.
A hymn which is a contrast to the battle hymn of the Swedish king is Dr. Paul Eber’s hymn, which he composed, based on the words of King Jehoshaphat (2 Chron, 20: 12). There are several translations, but as is so often the case, the favorite one which we give is that from the pen of Miss Winkworth.
Below are some must read posts on hymn history and lyrics:
Gustavus Adolphus Battle Song Lyrics
For more stories and lyrics of popular hymns click here.