Zwingli’s Christian Song (Poem) When Smitten with Pestilence (1519)

ulrich-zwingli-monumentYesterday while comparing a more recent translation of the works of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) with the edition we have in the PRC Seminary library, I discovered a striking poem the Swiss Reformer penned during the time of a great plague (pestilence) that struck him and devastated the city of Zurich (and the rest of the Swiss confederation), the heart of the Reformation in Switzerland.

The title as it appears in the collected works of Zwingli we have (Samuel M. Jackson ed.) is “A Christian Song Written by Huldreich Zwingli When He Was Attacked by the Pestilence” (with this date, “End of 1519”). It includes this editor’s note:

This is the most successful of Zwingli’s preserved poetry. It was the memorial of his serious illness from the plague which in 1519 carried off nearly half of the population of Zurich. Though unadapted to singing, it has been given a tune and is found in many hymn-books of the 15th and 16th centuries, published in Zurich.

In another place, one finds this more complete introduction explaining the context in which Zwingli wrote the song:

In August 1519, whilst Zwingli was visiting the spa town of Bad Pfäfers, news came to him that the plague which was sweeping through the Swiss Confederacy had arrived in Zürich. Zwingli had only been ministering in the city for a matter of months, having been installed as the Leutpriester (People’s Priest) in the Grossmünster in January. The Black Death of the fourteenth century had long passed, but across sixteenth-century Europe there were still devastating waves of bubonic plague. The symptoms included painful swollen lymph nodes (buboes) which gave the disease its name. Often those with the means to leave the city would have retreated, but Zwingli immediately returned to the city in order to minister to the sick and the dying. By mid-September, when the epidemic had taken some 2,500 lives, Zwingli and his brother Andreas contracted the disease and fell seriously ill. Over the course of several months, Zwingli battled the disease and he made a slow recovery by the spring of 1520. Altogether, the Zurich plague claimed the lives of over 7,000 people, a quarter of the population, including Andreas.

Zwingli’s “Christian Song” has three (3) parts to it:

I. At the Beginning of the Illness (and here follows the lines that belong to each section):

Help, Lord God, help
In this trouble!
I think death is at the door.
Stand before me, Christ;
For Thou hast overcome him!

To Thee I cry:
If it is Thy will,
take out the dart,
which wounds me
Nor lets me have an hour’s
rest or repose!

Will’st Thou, however,
that death take me
in the midst of my days,
so let it be!
Do what Thou wilt;
Me nothing lacks. [or, “nothing shall be too much for me”]
Thy vessel am I;
to make or break altogether.

For if Thou takest away
My spirit
From this earth,
Thou dost it
that it [my spirit] may not grow worse
Nor spot
The pious lives and ways of others.

II. In the Midst of His Illness:

Console Me, Lord God, console me!
The illness increases,
Pain and fear seize
My soul and body.
Come to me then,
With Thy grace,
O my only consolation!

It will surely save
Everyone, who
His heart’s desire
And hopes sets
On Thee, and who besides
Despises all gain and loss.
Now all is up.

My tongue is dumb,
It cannot speak a word.
My senses are all blighted.
Therefore is it time
That Thou my fight
Conductest hereafter;
Since I am not
So strong, that I
Can bravely
Make resistance
To the Devil’s wiles and treacherous hand.

Still will my spirit
Constantly abide by Thee,
however he rages.

III. During Convalescence [recovery]:

Sound, Lord God, sound!
I think I am
Already coming back. [i.e., to health]
Yes, if it please Thee,
That no spark of sin
Rule me longer on earth.
Then my lips must
Thy praise and teaching
Bespeak more
Than ever before,
However it may go,
In simplicity and with no danger.

Although I must
The punishment of death
Sometimes endure,
Perhaps with greater anguish
Than would now have
Happened, Lord! [i.e., if I had died this time]
Since I came
So near; [i.e., to death’s door]
So will I still
The spite and boasting
Of this world
Bear joyfully for the sake of the reward
By Thy help,
Without which nothing can be perfect.

I find these words a powerful testimony to the way we must respond to life and death during these pandemic days. Are we able to sing with Zwingli in this way, whatever our portion is right now?

If you are interested in the original Swiss version, visit this page for Gebetslied in der Pest.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Just one mistake-death is not a punishment to the believer but a passage way to eternal life!

    Like


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