17-1 A Mighty Fortress

Story Behind the Hymn

In the early 16th Century, Martin Luther, composer of the hymn, boldly proclaimed before the Emperor, “I cannot, I shall not, I will not recant.” For this he became a wanted man to be burned at the stake. He took shelter under a German priest’s protection. While in exile, he began thinking about the words to this hymn. Years later he completed it during a time when Wittenberg was quarantined due to the Bourbonic Plague. Luther and his pregnant wife were ordered to leave town, but they refused. Instead, they opened their home as a refuge for the sick, caring for their neighbors in need.

Luther, priest, composer, leader of the German Reformation, author of the 95 Thesis, was also considered father of the German language. He composed both the words and the tune to this, his favorite hymn. He would often sing this commentary on Psalm 46 when he found himself struggling with depression as he often did. In recent times, this hymn rang throughout the National Service of Prayer at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. just 3 days after the 9/11 Al-Qaeda attacks against the US. It has been translated into nearly every language.

Luther came to know God when he was assigned to teach a class about the Bible—a closed book to people in the Middle Ages. As a monk, he knew little about it. But as he read, he discovered great treasures locked in it—salvation, peace, forgiveness, eternal life through Jesus Christ. It is this forgotten treasure that prompted him to post his 95 Theses. His studies had revealed to him that true Christianity did not depend on what one knows about God, but on a right relationship with God. He had full confidence in God, assured that no matter what floods may come, God is mighty to defend and protect.

His message, along with his understanding of the power of the printing press led him to become history’s first #1 best-selling author with his sermons, books, and pamphlets. Yet, in his day, he was probably best known for the hymns he composed. He records in his journal that. “I have compiled these [37] hymns so that the holy Gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew, may be noisily spread abroad.” And it was. At church, in town, at school, in pubs, at home. People throughout the country were singing the hymns Luther wrote. When the traveling troubadours asked for requests, the audience wanted to hear the latest hits by the monk from Wittenberg. Luther had become the first international pop music star.