O Gott, du Frommer Gott

O Gott, du Frommer Gott J. Brahms

O God, Our Faithful God

O Gott, du Frommer Gott J. S. Bach

Certain hymns have caught the imaginations of composers down through the eons more than others, and “O Gott, du Frommer Gott” — better known to us as “O God, Our Faithful God” is one of them (277 in our hymnal).

The original German text is by Johann Heermann (1585-1647), born in what is modern-day Poland. None of his elder siblings had survived beyond childhood, so when infant Johann became very ill, his mother prayed that, if he survived, she would pay for him to study at university. He attended the local school in Raudten, and when his teacher left the school to become the local pastor in 1597, Heermann’s parents took him to Wohlau, where he lived and studied with Jakob Fuchs, a doctor and apothecary. After a year he became ill yet again, and his parents brought him home. After recovering, he returned to school in Raudten, and began his first poetry at the age of seventeen.

After graduation and ordination, he taught at the university, but in 1607, had to stop after he contracted an eye infection. Four years later in (Lutheran) Köben, he became a deacon, then the pastor a week later when the pastor died. The plague arrived in 1613, and in 1616 a fire swept through the town. And, in 1617 Heermann’s wife Dorothea died childless. He married again in 1618 to Anna, daughter of a merchant, and they had four children. Heermann fell ill once again in 1623 and never really recovered, his nose and air passages had become infected. The Thirty Years’ War struck soon afterwards, and Köben was plundered by Catholic troops in 1632, 1633, 1634 and 1642 — the Heermann family lost their worldly possessions several times. In 1634, his illness prevented him from preaching altogether, and he no longer read out his sermons in church. On doctor’s advice, he moved across the border to Poland where he died in 1647.

Because hymn translators are faced with the ridiculously difficult task of making their translation both rhyme and fit the original meter, liberties are necessarily taken with the text. A more straightforward translation of Heermann’s text has its own edge to it. Here are a few verses:

Oh God, you righteous God
you source of good gifts,
without whom nothing exists that does exist,
from whom we have everything :
give me a healthy body
and grant that in such a body
there may remain an inviolate soul
and a pure conscience.
If there is danger,
then let me not despair,
give me heroic courage,
help me to bear my cross!
Grant that I may overcome
my enemies with gentleness.
And if I need counsel
may I find good counsel.
Let me with everyone
live in peace and friendship,
as far as is Christian.
If you want to give me anything to do with
wealth, property and money,
then give this also,
that nothing may be mixed up
with any goods that are unjust.