An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Katharina von Schlegel
Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on 16th November 2011
My first encounter with Katharina von Schlegel was thirty years ago. Travelling from my home in England to go to Northern Ireland, for visit Northern Ireland for the first time in order to attend a funeral. The arrangements were progressing when I arrived and there was a searching after a hymn to be included in the order of service, it did not appear in the Church of Ireland hymnbook, but was found in the Presbyterian Church Hymnary. Churches were new and strange organisations to me, but even then it seemed odd that the hymn had not been selected for inclusion in the Church of Ireland hymnal.
Katharina von Schlegel’s hymn ‘Be still, my soul’, has become a familiar friend since that time, but becoming familiar with the story of its writer has been much more difficult.
Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel was born on 22nd October 1697. Her name suggests that she came from an aristocratic family. Perhaps it was family money that enabled her association with a Lutheran religious house in the town of Köthen. She was described as a ‘Stiftsfräulein’, a canoness, though it seems that her name does not appear in the records of the ‘stift’, the religious house to which she was said to belong. Her letters from 1750-52 with Heinrich Ernst, Count Stolberg, suggest that rather than being in a religious house, she was a member of the small court of the duke of Anhalt-Köthen; a court where Johann Sebastian Bach was musical director from 1717 until 1723.
Katharina von Schlegel was shaped by a renewal movement in the church known as Pietism; a movement that was founded by a 17th Century German Lutheran Philipp Spener and which shaped, amongst others, Joachim Neander.
When looking at Neander, we noted that the term ‘Pietist’ was intended as a form of ridicule by those critical of the movement, as the term ‘Methodist’ would be a century later. Spener was to publish a book in 1675 called Earnest Desire for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church. He made six proposals for restoring the life of the Church:
(i) Bible study in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”)
(ii) The priesthood of all believers allowing the laity a share in the spiritual government of the Church
(iii) a knowledge of Christianity being insufficient unless it is lived out practically
(iv) instead of attacking those who disagreed, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
(v) giving more prominence to the devotional life in theological training
(vi) a different style of preaching, in place of rhetoric, an emphasis on the fruits of the Spirit in people’s inner lives
Hymn singing had been part of the spiritual life of Jesus and his friends. Matthew 26:30 notes that following the Last Supper, ‘After singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives’. Yet by medieval times congregational hymn singing had disappeared from worship. Philipp Spener had seen singing as important to the renewal of the church and the late 17th Century had seen a great flourishing in hymn writing.
Katharina von Schlegel is said to have written 29 hymns. Her writing is shaped by the Pietist tradition of a deep personal relationship with, and commitment to, Jesus and a deep grounding in the Scriptures. The hymn we know as ‘Be still my soul” first appeared in a publication in 1752 as ‘Stille, meine wille, dein Jesus hilft siegen’, in a collection of hymns of hymns for clergy, ’Neue Sammlung Geistlicher Lieder’. A number of her hymns appeared in ‘Die Cöthnische Lieder’ published by Philipp Erhard in 1769 and intended for the spiritual upbuilding and enrichment of the faithful.
Whether a formal member of a religious house or not, von Schlegel seems to have devoted her life to prayer and service. Given the Pietist emphasis on a personal faith, perhaps we can deduce something of her life from the words of ‘Be still, my soul’, a hymn that draws its Scriptural inspiration from Psalm 37:7. There is a sense in her lyrics of there having been a profound sadness in her life, of having come through very dark times, and perhaps of having questioned God’s purposes in what has happened. In the first verse, she writes:
‘bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
leave to thy God to order and provide;
in every change, he faithful will remain’.
Verse 2 suggests that, if Katharina von Schlegel has been through sadness, perhaps personal grief or illness or great disappointment, it has been something that has challenged her confidence in her faith, made her think that there is no meaning in the present time and that she must look to a day to come when things will become clear. Lines in verse two are a reassurance to herself:
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
There is a direct encounter with bereavement in the third verse, a bereavement that deepens her relationship with Jesus. Von Schlegel lived a century after Thomas Hobbes who described life as ‘nasty, brutish and short’, but life in the 18th Century was not much better than it had been in the 17th. People died young and people died from simple illnesses, mortality was a fact of everyday life, to write of bereavement when it was something so commonplace suggests that someone very close to her heart had died young. Perhaps someone she had hoped to marry?
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the vale of tears,
In the fourth verse, the New Testament promise of the Lord coming to take his people to himself inspires her hopes of life to come that is very different from the life that is here:
when disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Katharina von Schlegel died in 1768. To pass the age of 70 in those times was to die old and full of years. She seems never to have married and to have had no family who might have told the story behind her words.
‘Be still, my soul’ comes to us through the work of Jane Borthwick, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, who in the 1850s, a century after the hymn was first published, translated the words from German into English and provided the beautiful versification with which we have become familiar.
Given Katharina von Schlegel’s Pietist background and the profound expression of faith in her words, we can only assume her life was one that was shaped by deep experiences that compelled her to articulate what it was that she really believed. Perhaps the details are not important, as she herself would have said, what matters is being still and knowing the Lord is with you.
Thank you so much for writing that. I have loved that hymn for many years – from Presbyterian hymn book. The words are so full of strength and support and I have read them and carried them in my heart during many a testing time. It is sung to Finlandia which was the first record I ever bought. So good now to know about the lady who wrote it.
I loved reading your thoughts about the author of this beautiful hymn. It is found in the LDS hymn book as well and has brought so much comfort. These words prove a common thread, that all will encounter loss, sadness,and grief, yet just as surely we can find joy through Christ, the Savior and Healer in all things. No matter our backgrounds, wether we were born at the time of Christ, in the 1600’s as the author was, or in our own time, we are truly all brothers and sisters in Christ.
Thank you so very much for writing this. God has deeply comforted me with the words to her song, “Be Still.” I love the version that Kari Jobe sings because it helps me to worship God. I am a non denominational believer. And, I have been saved for 23 years. I also have struggled deeply and for several decades with depression. Her song helps me a lot to persevere in believing in Christ as well as persevering in life. I attended a women’s conference last Spring where the speaker quoted Katerina as saying, “Lord, I am willing to receive what You give, lack what You withhold, and relinquish what You take.” I’m not sure if these are words to another one of the hymns that she wrote, but God is powerfully using the ideas she expressed to change my life. If we are to change and grow in our relationship with Jesus, it is vital that we accept what the LORD gives and withholds and takes from us. He knows what He is doing. He is good. We can trust Him, that He has good intended for us. He calls us to trust Him whether we understand what He’s doing, or not. Whether we can see Him at work, or not.
Thank you for your kind words – the battle with depression is never an easy one. 2 Corinthians 12:9 is always a source of encouragement
I recently heard this song and it touched my heart like few from this era. As I look at my broken life I take from her words the hope and expectation that she writes about and it encourages me beyond description. So many years have gone by since the writing of this song, but nothing has really changed. Hearts are still broken, bodies age and die, and there seems to be a waning of the desire to know our Lord more perfectly. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful lady. I look forward to seeing her in Heaven soon.
Thanks so much for the information about Katherina von Schlegel and your reflection on this hymn.
I wanted so much to know more about the background to the hymn, and the woman who wrote it.
It would be good if there were deeper research into her life so that we might have a greater grasp of the feeling behind the hymn
Dear Ian, thank you so much for the information you provided. “Be still my soul” is one of the most beautiful and meaningful hymns in my Christian life. I came to know Christ at age 10. today at age 60, having experienced a myriad of what we know as life; ( joy, grief, pain ,sorrow, loss gain) revisiting this hymn has always reminded me that no matter what happens in life; being still and trusting God’s divine plan FOR YOUR life is the foundation of my faith. Reading the information on it’s author encouraged me and brings comfort as I am sure she felt writing this hymn. I lost my husband (of only 7 years) last year in a sudden traffic accident.
I lost everything as he was my sole source of financial income. I am disabled with a chronic breathing disorder as well as arthritic, and on continuous oxygen. I discovered through that hymn and prayer, that Jesus really does control the wind and the sea! by being still resting in HIM HE IS PERFECTING ALL THAT CONCERNS ME. THANK YOU FOR THIS SITE.
Thank you. It is a hymn that seems always fresh and new.
Thank you for posting this information on Katharina von Schlegel. I attended a memorial service last night for a lady I worked with who died last week and this hymn was played. I am Catholic and had never heard it before, but I felt so moved by it and was struck by how appropriate it is in times of grief. I searched the web to find more information on the writer of the hymn and came upon your site. You have the most information on her life and I agree that she must have gone through some tough times in order to write something so moving that has stood the test of time.
Thirty years ago I was SCUBA diving off a sailboat with my husband of 2 1/2 months. On his second dive, things went horribly awry and he drowned. He was 26.
I first learned of this hymn when a wise aunt suggested it for his memorial service. The words take my breath away — it is so intensely personal. Thank you for providing some insight into the author of those words. They continue to comfort me decades later.
Every time I hear it sung, it seems a hymn with even greater depth.
Thank you so very much for your insight on this beautiful hymn. I had heard it sung again earlier today and I just had to do research on Katharina, because her words are so deeply moving in me, as life’s trials, in serving our Lord, are so overwhelming at times.
The words are as if they were written just for me. Praise be to God!
God richly bless you, Ian.
Thank you for your kind words. It is a hymn that never fails to move the heart.
Ian, Thanks a bunch for bringing to our awareness, the climate of spiritual renewal, personal prayer, singing of praise to God and hymn writing that emerged out of the crucible of great pain, uncertainty and unrest that was happening in Katharina von Schlegel’s days. May God, as He did with our sister Katharina and other God-honoring maestros of her time, bring forth great hymnists and musicians, who out of the “Why Lord’s” of great loss, affliction, unemployment, injustice and pain of these times, powerfully invoke chords and Psalms of praise that rock heaven and earth with songs of adoration and confident trust in Him. May God shepherd His people through the fields of heartache and uncertainty, to trust, honor and love Him more. May our songs and hymns move all the hosts of heaven and earth to reverberate His praise! “Lord, please do this great work in Your church in these days. Amen.”
I too am most grateful for sharing your research with us Ian. I am a retired British Army officer and have sung this hymn at some very poignant and challenging times during the 37 years of my career. It never failed to move those who sung or even just mouthed it and we have chosen it for the funeral of my late mother in law in a few days time. It somehow is very comforting to know the personality behind this very personal hymn. Thank you.
Thank u so much for sharing this beautiful hymn, which has touched me in a time of grief and despair. I have hope now after listening to this powerful song. Thank u so much.
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Simply profound and beautiful. Few songs speak so deeply to the life lived in Christ.
Be still my soul…I had an operation for cancer this week. Such was the power of this hymn that I’m determined to learn it straight from the heart. When I woke up I was singing it. Gone was the fear of that moment all that remained was admiration for the skill of the surgeon and his team. How do you reconcile this hymn with my rosary beads? Heart speaks to heart…M
This song came in to my mind on 9 July 2020 just before I attended my cousin’s funeral but I had no idea why nor what song it was. The first thing I thought of when I woke up was “Morning has broken” and that was the first hymn played at my cousin’s funeral, so I had a premonition. On my return, I had a message from a new cousin in Finland I did not know I had, on http://www.geni.com. It troubled me so much that I didn’t know what this other song was that I played it on the piano by ear and emailed the Smartphone recording of it to a cousin in America whose wife is a church minister and immediately recognised the music from “Finlandia” – what a coincidence as I had a new message from Finland! I soon found it is also a hymn and when I read it was written by Katharina von Schlegel I was amazed, as I am a DNA match to some von Schlegel descendants in America. I investigated on my family tree and I think there is a strong chance her parents are as follows:
Father: Christoph Gottlieb Schlegel von Gottleben born 20 May 1640 at Breslau in Silesia, died 19 June 1697 at Grimma near Leipzig in Saxony. He was Archdeacon of the Kirche zur Lieben Frauen in Breslau.
Mother: Dorothea Christina Hertel, born 11 September 1654 at Grimma, died 9 May 1698, according to http://www.geni.com in America but without any supporting evidence and probably incorrect.
If Katharina was their daughter then she was posthumous as she was born on 2 October and her father died on 19 June.
It would also account for her being sent to a religious order for young ladies of noble birth and the loss of her parents could account for her sadness and for her faith, and that she hoped to meet them in heaven.
It might be possible to locate a baptism record at the church in Grimma, if I have speculated correctly.
In any event, I opened a profile for Katharina on Geni so as not to lose track of her – and she may have the right parents!
What a wonderful connection to have! Thank you for sharing it.
Thank you for the research you did Ian, and also to the many people who have written their comments – all your words are encouraging to me at my present struggles. As you replied to one comment – 2 Corinthians 12:9 is reassuring.