Philipp Nicolai, 1556-1608

Philipp Nicolai D.D. was the son of Dieterich Nicolai, a Lutheran pastor. He was born at Mengeringhausen, Aug. 10th. 1556. In 1575, Nicolai entered the University of Erfurt and in 1576 he went to Wittenburg. After completing his University course in 1579, (D.D. at Wittenburg, July 4th. 1594) he lived for some time, it Volkardinghausen near Mengeringhausen, and frequently preached for his father. In Aug. 1583, he was appointed Lutheran preacher at Herdecke, but found many difficulties there, the members of the Town Council being Roman Catholics. After the invasion by the Spanish troops in April 1586, his colleague reintroduced the Mass, and Nicolai resigned his post. In the end of 1586, he was appointed diaconus at Niederwildungen, near Waldeck, and in 1587 he became pastor there. He then became, in Nov. 1588, chief pastor at Altwildungen, and also court preacher to the widowed Countess Margaretha of Waldeck, and tutor to her son, Count Wilhelm Ernst. Here he took an active part on the Lutheran side in the Sacramentarian controversy and was, in Sept. 1592, inhibited from teaching by Count Franz of Waldeck, but the prohibition was soon removed, and in the Synod of 1593 held at Mengeringhausen, he found all the clergy of the principality of Waldeck willing to agree to the Formula of Concord. In Oct. 1596, he became paster at Unna in Westphalia, where he again became engaged in heated controversy with the Calvinists; passed through a frightful pestilence, and did not return until the end of Apr. 1599. Finally in Apr. 1601, he was elected chief pastor of St. Katherine's Church at Hamburg, where he entered on his duties Aug. 6th. 1601. In Oct. 22nd. 1608 he took part in the ordination of a colleague in St. Katherine's Church, the diacanus Penshorn, and returned home feeling unwell. A violent fever developed itself under which he sank, and died Oct. 26th. 1608. He was universally esteemed, was a most popular and influential preacher, and was regarded as a 'pillar' of the Lutheran Church. In his private life he seems to have been most lovable and estimable. Besides his fame as a preacher his reputation rests mainly on his hymns. His presented works are mostly polemical, often very violent and acrid in tone, such as the undoubted sincerity of his zeal to preserve pure and unadulterated Lutherism may explain, but cannot be said to justify.

Nicolai wrote a hymn in 1597 at Unna, Westphalia, where he was pastor. It was during a terrible pestilence which raged there from Jul. 1597 to Jan. 1598. In July, 300 people died. In Aug.170 died, and in all, over 1300 fell victims. Nicolai's parsonage overlooked the churchyard, and there daily interments took place, often to the number of thirty. In those days of distress, when every household was in mourning, Nicolai's thoughts turned to death, and thence to God in heaven. In the preface (dated Aug. 10th. 1598) to his 'Freuden-Spiegel' he says "There seemed to me no thing more sweet, delightful and agreeable, than the contemplation of the noble, sublime doctrine of Eternal Life obtained through the Blood of Christ. This I allowed to dwell in my heart, day and night, and searched the Scripture as to what it revealed on this matter; read also the sweet treatise of the ancient doctor St. Augustine. (De Civitate Dei)... Then day by day I wrote out my meditations, found myself, thank God! wonderfully well, comforted in heart, joyful in spirit, and truly content; gave to my manuscript the name and title of a 'Mirror of Joy' and composed this to leave behind me (if God should call me from this world) as the token of my peaceful, joyful, Christian departure, or (if God should spare me to health) to comfort other sufferers whom He should also visit with the pestilence... Now has the gracious, holy God most mercifully preserved me amid the dying from the dreadful pestilence, and wonderfully spared me beyond all my thoughts and hopes: so that with the prophet David I can say to Him, "O how great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast laid up for them that fear Thee".

Nicolai wrote a hymn based on the 45th. Psalm. He entitled it "A spiritual bridal song of the believing soul, concerning Jesus Christ, her heavenly Bridegroom". It was written during the great pestilence of 1597. One described the writing of the hymn as follows:- "One morning Nicolai was in great distress and tribulation in his quiet study. He rose in spirit from the distress and death which surrounded him to his Redeemer and Saviour and, while he clasped Him in ardent love, there welled forth from the inmost depths of his heart this precious hymn of the Saviour's love and of the joys of heaven. He was so entirely absorbed in this holy exaltation that he forgot all around him, even his mid-day meal, and allowed nothing to disturb him in his poetical labours until the hymn was completed.

Nicolai's hymn in 'Spiritual Songs' is no. 482. 'The Father from Eternity, Chose us, O Jesus Christ, in Thee'. It was in all the versions of the Little Flock hymnbook from 1856 to 1903. It was not included in Mr. W.J. Hocking's version of 1928.

Hymns by Philipp Nicolai