I have written about the earliest known Catholic women hymnists, such as Hildegard; and I’ve written about the earliest known Eastern women hymnists, such as Khosroviduht, but what about the earliest Protestant hymnists? Luther wrote his 95 theses at Wittenberg in October 1517. He was excommunicated in 1520. He was a big believer in congregational singing in the vernacular and indeed wrote hymns of his own. In 1524 Luther published Elisabeth von Meseritz’s hymn, “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn” which she wrote about 1520. You can’t get much earlier than that for a Protestant hymn.
Elisabeth was born about 1500. The “von” in her name was a mark the family was of nobility. As with Hildegard and other higher born Catholic women, she was sent away to a convent in Treptow in Pomerania along the southern part of the Baltic Sea. In some manner, she was so influenced by the new Gospel preached by a Luther follower, John Bugenhagen, that she fled from the nunnery to Wittenberg to Bugenhagen’s household. Some time after that, she met and fell in love with Caspar Cruciger, who later would became one of Luther’s closest colleagues. Luther officiated at their marriage in 1524. Her new friends arranged a large wedding and feast because her own family disowned her due to her conversion to Luther’s teachings. Their daughter, also named Elisabeth, eventually married Luther’s son, John. Elisabeth the elder unfortunately died at a fairly early age, around 35.
Elisabeth was the first female Lutheran hymn writer. “Herr Christ der einig Gotts Sohn” has been in Lutheran hymnals ever since. It appeared in the Erfurt Enchiridion hymnal in 1524 entitled “A Song of Praise Concerning Christ” and was approved by Luther. It was translated into English and published in 1535 and included in Coverdale’s Spiritual Psalms. Since then, it is usually associated with Epiphany An unverified legend from the late 1600s said that she once dreamed she was standing in the pulpit of the Wittenberg church preaching. When she told Caspar this, he replied that when the church sang her hymn, she was in fact, preaching. Later, her hymn was attributed to a man, Andreas Knoepken, probably in part because she was a woman. Before this issue was important, she was given full credit because the early Lutherans saw her authorship as a fulfillment the claim of Joel 2:28 “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . .” I possess hymnals from assorted Christian faiths, but only the Lutheran hymnal contains this hymn. This follows a pattern I see wherein each faith tradition emphasizes its own. How impoverished we are! How enriched we would be if we could learn from each other!