A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Discovering the power of Luther’s original lyrics

Leading the way not just in word, but in song, was Martin Luther. He wrote nearly forty hymns, many of which he composed not only the words but even the music. His most famous, of course, “A Mighty Fortress,” often is called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.”

 

The Reformers didn’t just protest; they sang. The Protestant Reformation, which began in earnest 500 years ago this week, didn’t just give birth to preaching and writing, but it inspired music and unleashed song.

That God declares us rebels fully righteous on the sole basis of his Son, through faith alone — such news is too good not to sing. And that our Creator and Redeemer himself has spoken into our world, and preserved his speech for us in a Book, to be illumined by his own Spirit — such news is too good not to craft into verse. Perhaps the greatest evidence that the Reformation released real joy in freeing captives from the bondage of man-made religion is that its theology made for such a good marriage with music. The Reformation sang.

Battle Hymn of the Reformation

Leading the way not just in word, but in song, was Martin Luther. He wrote nearly forty hymns, many of which he composed not only the words but even the music. His most famous, of course, “A Mighty Fortress,” often is called “The Battle Hymn of the Reformation.” The song embodies with strength and gusto the very spirit of the Reformation, breaking free from the flaccidity and poverty of medieval theology with rich God-confidence.

The hymn takes its inspiration mainly from the first two verses of Psalm 46, along with the refrain of verses 7 and 11.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear . . . (Psalm 46:1–2)

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. (Psalm 46:7, 11)

Psalm 46 opens with God as “refuge and strength,” and the battle hymn opens with God as “mighty fortress” — literally, a strong or unshakable castle. Line three is “help in trouble”; stanza three is “we will not fear.”

But that’s where the parallels end. Rather than a mere hymnodic expression of the psalm, we do better to call it a Christian hymn inspired by it. What’s generic in Psalm 46, Luther makes specific, and Christian. He names the personal agent behind the trouble: “our ancient foe,” the devil. He puts a human face and person to the rescue: “Christ Jesus it is he.” And the hymn apexes with the glorious Himalayan peaks of Romans 8.

How Did We Get the English?

Perhaps at this point, or sometime in the past, you’ve wondered about the English version we sing today, Hey, didn’t Luther speak German? Who brought this powerful hymn into English, and how faithful is it to Luther’s original?

The hymn came into English as early as ten years after Luther composed it, but the version most of us sing today was translated by Frederick Hedge more than 300 years later, in 1853. It is by no means a literal translation of the original, understandably taking certain licenses for the sake of meter and rhyme. Add to that the fact that Hedge was a Unitarian minister — meaning he believed in God’s oneness but not threeness. In other words, he was no Trinitarian. He believed Jesus was fully human but not God, inspired by God but not his eternal divine Son.

To give Hedge his due, his English version well embodies the mood and major themes of Luther’s original. “Mighty fortress,” admittedly less familiar imagery for us, captures Psalm 46 better than what comes to our minds today when we think of a “castle.” What’s in view in the psalm is first strength, not beauty. Think Helm’s Deep, not Disneyland. And we can thank Hedge for his powerful quatrain, alluding with Luther to Luke 21:16–18, at the finale:

Let goods and kindred go
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still

What the Unitarian Lost

However, we shouldn’t be too surprised that a Unitarian translator might miss some things, both small and large — some intentionally and others unavoidably, given the nature of translating lyrics as opposed to prose. To help you better enjoy the power of Luther’s original, let’s note seven variants, thanks to a “woodenly literal” translation by John Piper, reviewed by German pastor Matthias Lohmann. (The full translation is posted below.)

1. Offense, Not Just Defense

Hedge’s second line says God is “a bulwark never failing.” What we miss from the original is that God, our Mighty Fortress, is not only defensive but also offensive — literally, “a good defense and weapon.” He not only protects but leads us forward into victory.

2. Help from Every Misery

In crafting his poetic lines, Hedge says God is our helper “amid the flood of mortal ills.” Luther’s original is more sweeping: “he helps us get free from every misery.” This is the major theme we see emerge: Luther’s is stronger.

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