Johann Heermann and the Comfort of the Cross

Johann Heermann and the Comfort of the Cross

            In the spring of 1630, while the Thirty-Year War raged around Europe, pastor and poet Johann Heermann wrote a hymn to inspire his congregation to meditate on Christ’s suffering.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,

that we to judge thee have in hate pretended?

By foes derided, by thine own rejected,

O most afflicted![1]

            Heermann was well acquainted with affliction, so much that one of his contemporary poets, Andreas Gryphius, called him “the Silesian Job” (from the German region where Heermann was born in 1585, Silesia).

Heermann’s Life

Johann’s father was a furrier with limited means. Of their five children, only Johann - the last one - survived birth, but continued to be weak and frail. At one point, when Johann became seriously ill, his mother promised that, if he recovered, she would direct him toward the ministry. Johann was healed, and she kept her vow.

After receiving a primary education, Johann moved to nearby Wohlau to study Latin. There, he distinguished himself for his Latin poetry. But his stay was cut short by a bout of malaria that forced him to return home.

At age 17, he came to the attention of the rector of the school in Fraustadt (or Wschowa, in today’s Poland), who invited him to study there. Heermann thrived under the guidance of the theologian Valerius Herberger, an outstanding preacher who emphasized the gospel and helped his congregation to find Jesus in every page of the Scriptures. Heermann learned much from Herberger. Besides studying under him, he also served as his writing assistant.

Heermann completed his studies in Brieg (also known as Brzeg, Poland). His writing skills were greatly valued by Emperor Rudolf II, who crowned him Latin poet laureate in 1608. In 1609, Heermann published his first collection of Latin poems. All along, he also wrote poems in German.

            Two years later, he was called to the ministry in the small German town of Köben. He kept preaching there until 1634, when a longstanding, severe affliction of the throat forced him to stop. He kept writing his sermons, which were then read by an assistant.

When Life is Dark and Cheerless

For much of this time, he had to bring comfort to a population crushed by the effects of the Thirty-Year War. In 1613, Köben was ravaged by a pestilence. Three years later, it was largely destroyed by a fire. Between 1629 and 1634, it was plundered four times. The plague returned in 1631, killing over 500 citizens (nearly half of the population).

            Heermann’s suffered deeply from these calamities. In 1617, his wife Dorothea Fiege died childless. During each plunder, he lost all of his property. On top of this, he was almost killed three times – twice by sword, and another time by bullets which flew over his head while he crossed the River Oder.

            It was around during this time that he wrote hymns of encouragement and comfort, such as “O God, my faithful God.”

When dangers gather round,

oh, keep me calm and fearless;

help me to bear the cross

when life seems dark and cheerless;

help me, as you have taught,

to love both great and small,

and, by your Spirit's might,

to live at peace with all.[2]

            Loving “both great and small” and living “at peace with all” was an arduous task at a time when religious sentiments often degenerated into conflict.

            Heermann finally retired to Lissa (or Lezno, in today’s Poland) in 1638, together with his second wife Anna Teichmann and their four children. His sorrows were not over. In 1640, his heart sank when some local Jesuits convinced his eldest son, 20-year-old Samuel, to convert to Roman Catholicism – a religion Heermann found dangerously false.

Heermann wrote Samuel a heartfelt letter, expressing his love and concern and explaining the perils of the teachings his son had embraced. In 1643, Samuel returned to the Lutheran church. But Heermann’s joy was soon followed by a bitter sting, when his son died suddenly and apparently with no explanation (so much that it was rumored that he had been poisoned).

Too weak to attend the graveyard service, Heermann wrote, Das auge tranet stets, das Herze weinet Blut (“The eye constantly weeps, the heart cries blood.”)[3] Four years later, he followed his son in the eternal joy he had often described in sermons and hymns. The large number of existing hymns (over 400) makes him one of the most prolific hymn-writers of his age.

The Comfort of the Cross

            For Heermann, the cross of Christ was a source of comfort in more ways than one. Besides providing assurance of salvation, it put human suffering into perspective, pointing to both the cause and the end of all pain, and highlighting God’s infinite mercy and compassion.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?

Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!

'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;

I crucified thee.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,

I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,

think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,

not my deserving.[4]

And the cross of Christ provides strength to face temptation and even death.

Should some lust or sharp temptation

Fascinate my sinful mind,

Draw me to Your cross and passion,

And new courage I shall find.

Or should Satan press me hard,

Let me then be on my guard,

Saying, "Christ for me was wounded,"

That the tempter flee confounded.

            Today, Heermann is remembered mostly for his hymns, but during his time he was also highly respected as a man and pastor. His preaching focused on the person and work of Christ and was faithful to Luther’s separation of law and gospel, providing a troubled congregation with the confidence of God’s gracious presence and protection and with the comforting hope of future resurrection.



[1] Johann Heermann, Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended, tr. by Robert Bridges, https://hymnary.org/text/ah_holy_jesus_how_hast_thou_offended

[2] Johann Heermann, O God, my faithful God, tr. by Catherine Winkworth, https://hymnary.org/text/o_god_thou_faithful_god

[3] Lives and Writings of the Great Fathers of the Lutheran Church, ed by Timothy Schmeling, Concordia Publishing House, 2016, p. 129

[4] Heermann, Ah, holy Jesus.