Third in a series on Lutheran saints. Here we meet Elisabeth Cruciger and see how, when the gospel breaks through, “your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17). Proposed date of commemoration: May 2.
Elisabeth was born to the noble family von Meseritz around the turn of the sixteenth century. In her early life she was educated and eventually took vows as a canoness at the Mariensbusch abbey in the city of Treptow in the German region of Pomerania (today’s Poland). Marienbusch followed the Premonstratensian order, which had its own liturgical rite and placed great emphasis on the paschal suffering of Christ.
Like Katharina von Bora and many other nuns, Elisabeth fled her abbey in early 1522. Knowledge of Reformation ideas had arrived via Johannes Bugenhagen, who was at that time the rector of Treptow’s city school. She made her way to Wittenberg, where she lodged with the Bugenhagen family until in 1524 she married Caspar Cruciger, a reformer, teacher at the school in Magdeburg, and friend of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon.
Elisabeth and Caspar had two children: a daughter named Elisabeth who eventually married Luther’s son Hans, and a son named Caspar. The elder Caspar was later suspected of holding unacceptable ideas during intra-Lutheran disputes; the younger Caspar was actually imprisoned in Wittenberg and then exiled under suspicion of holding “crypto-Calvinist” ideas on the Lord’s Supper. Elisabeth herself died quite young in May of 1535, long before these accusations were leveled against her family members. Nothing else is known of her life other than her one long-standing contribution to Reformation music, the hymn “Lord Christ, the Only Son of God” (Herr Christ der einig Gotts Sohn).
As the story goes, one night Elisabeth dreamt that she preached in the Wittenberg church. Caspar, amused by the dream, took it to mean that the hymns she customarily sang at home, and had presumably composed herself, would someday have a place in public worship. It was not such a strange idea to interpret hymnwriting as preaching: early Lutheran hymnody stressed rich doctrinal content, setting evangelical teaching to music. Luther himself had put out a call for new church music by evangelical poets for use in worship, since up to that point the music of worship was Latin liturgical songs sung by the clergy alone; vernacular hymns were sung outside public worship as a matter of private devotion. Inspired by the happy concurrence of private dream and public need, Elisabeth wrote down her one extant hymn.
“Lord Christ, the Only Son of God” is a beautiful exemplar of the new Lutheran movement’s hymnody. It is full of scriptural allusions but doesn’t hesitate to take up themes from older Latin liturgical songs when they suit. It places Christ at the center with such devotion that, appropriately, Elisabeth modified a fifteenth-century love song for her tune. Luther liked the hymn so much that he put it in one of the first Lutheran hymnals, the 1524 Erfurter Enchiridion, and encouraged its singing in worship—exactly as Elisabeth dreamed and Caspar interpreted. It has continued to appear in Lutheran hymnals ever since.
Elisabeth’s hymn also enjoyed a brief fame in the British Isles. Miles Coverdale, an Englishman sympathetic to the continental Reformation, published in 1535 his own translation of German evangelical hymns, entitled Goostly Psalmes and Spirituall Songes. Though his translations were often rather loose, in this case he kept close to Elisabeth’s original, retaining her choice of tune as well. Coverdale’s hymnal was condemned in 1546, at the end of the reign of King Henry VIII, while Coverdale himself was in exile in Germany. But a Scottish dialect translation of Coverdale’s English translation did appear in 1565, in John Wedderburn’s Ane Compendious buik of godlie Psalmes and spirituall sangis, which was known to the Scottish reformer John Knox.
German Lutherans kept Elisabeth’s memory and work alive—for a time. In the late sixteenth century, Elisabeth’s hymn and Elisabeth herself as hymnwriter were taken as evidence of the living activity of the Holy Spirit in the church. For instance, in his book-length interpretation of German hymns published in 1588, Simon Pauli asserted that Elisabeth was “driven by the Holy Spirit” to write her hymn, citing Joel 2:28–29 and Peter’s sermon (which quotes Joel) in Acts 2:17–18 as evidence.
Starting in the seventeenth century, however, historians and hymn-compilers started to doubt that Elisabeth had really written the hymn and attributed it to à Andreas Knoepken, the reformer of Riga, instead. Maybe because of her husband and son’s tarnished theological reputation; maybe because of incredulity at the possibility of a woman, and a young one at that, writing such a sophisticated hymn. If the latter is the case, it matches well the general ecclesiastical trend of allowing greater possibilities to women in times of dramatic change and eschatological expectation, then restricting them once things go back to normal. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that scholarship unearthed the source of the error and established Elisabeth as the hymn’s rightful author once more.
The first two verses of the hymn do indeed preach: they proclaim Jesus as the only Son of the Father yet truly human, a descendent of Jesse, born in time of a human mother in order to break down the imprisoning gates of hell and and open up the welcoming gates of heaven.
But it is not enough for this to remain factual knowledge: it must be kindled in our hearts to create a true and living faith. This is the prayer and plea of the last three verses. Love and knowledge both must be increased in our hearts so we come to crave nothing but God’s mercy and favor; the everlasting light of the creator must shine within us; the Holy Spirit must crucify the old Adam and vivify the new.
Shortened contemporary translations of Elisabeth Cruciger’s hymn set to music can be found in hymnals under the title “The Only Son from Heaven”: Lutheran Book of Worship #86, Evangelical Lutheran Worship #309, and Lutheran Service Book #402. The Miles Coverdale version follows here with modernized spelling and punctuation.
Christ is the only son of God
the Father eternal.
We have in Jesse found this rod,
God and man natural.
He is the morning star,
his beams sendeth he out far
beyond other stars all.
He was for us a man born
In the last part of time.
Yet kept she maidenhead unforlorn,
his mother that bare him.
He hath hell’s gates broken
And heaven hath he made open,
Bringing us life again.
Let us increase in love of thee
And in knowledge also,
That we believing steadfastly
May in spirit serve thee so
That we in our hearts may savor
Thy mercy and thy favor
And to thirst after no more.
Thou only maker of all things,
Thou everlasting light,
From end to end all ruling
By thine own godly might:
Turn thou our hearts unto thee
And lighten them with the verity
That they err not from the right.
Awake us, Lord, we pray thee,
Thy Holy Spirit us give
which may our old man mortify
That our new man may live.
So will we always thank thee
That showest us so great mercy
And our sins dost forgive.
For Further Reading
Mary Jane Haemig, “Elisabeth Cruciger (1500?–1535): The Case of the Disappearing Hymn Writer,” Sixteenth Century Journal 32/1 (2001): 21–44.
Micheline White, “Women’s Hymns in Mid-Sixteenth-Century England: Elisabeth Cruciger, Miles Coverdale, and Lady Elizabeth Tyrwhit,” ANQ 24/1–2 (2011): 21–32.