Much akin to our present realities, times were frightening and uncertain in Wittenberg, Germany in the early 1540s. The Edict of Worms, which was issued by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) in 1521 in the aftermath of the Diet of Worms, was still in force. As a result, Dr. Martin Luther (1483-1546; and by extension his supporters) remained an outlaw under constant threat of death at the hands of the Pope and his subordinates. Furthermore, the Muslim Turks presented a recurring threat to German lands. Since the mid 1520s, they had been attacking and progressively annexing parts of the Hungarian empire. In 1529 they laid siege to Vienna though failed to capture it, but in 1541 captured the German city of Buda (now part of Budapest), raising deep concern that they would attack and capture other German lands and bring them under Muslim rule. There was also concern at the time that the Catholics would attempt to restore a unified Roman church to counter the threat from Islam. Finally, there was the recurring threat of plague, which had ravaged Wittenberg in 1527-29 and did so again in 1542. Times were tough indeed!
In response to the Turkish threat, at the behest of Elector Johann Friedrich (1503-1554), Dr. Luther published his Admonition to Pray against the Turks in October, 1541. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Luther wrote Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word for children to sing, praying for God’s protection against both the pope and the Turks. The hymn may have been published as early as 1542, but the earliest sources now available are hymnals published in Magdeburg in 1543 and Wittenberg in 1543/44. In the Wittenberg hymnal, the hymn was placed immediately following the six Luther hymns on the Chief Parts of the Catechism (LSB 581, 954, 766, 406/7, 607, 627), and one may find Catechism parallels in the stanzas of the hymn. The hymn was appended to editions of the Small Catechism and was used at the conclusion of catechumenate examinations. Furthermore, the hymn inspired Ludwig Helmbold’s (1532-1598) later Catechism hymn Lord, Help Us Ever to Retain (LSB 865), which was originally written to be sung to the same melody.
Johann Spangenberg (1484-1550) concluded his 1545 German order of the Mass for the churches at Nordhausen with this hymn, as did many Church orders of the time. Alternatively, many used the hymn to precede or follow the sermon. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) incorporated Lord, Keep Us Steadfast into a cantata for Sexagesima (BWV 126) as it responds well to the Epistle (2 Corinthians 11:19-12:9; St. Paul’s sufferings and weakness) and prepares for the Gospel (Luke 8:4-15; Parable of the Sower) text of the day. Others composed settings of the hymn, as well.
The first stanza originally read, “Preserve us Lord, in Your Word, and restrain the murder of the pope and Turks, who would cast down Jesus Christ, Your Son, from Your throne.” The wording obviously did not sit well with the Roman Catholics, and in the aftermath of the Schmalkaldic War, the singing of the hymn was banned, on pain of banishment from the church or even death. In some later hymnals this wording against the pope and Turks was changed, though in LCMS was retained as late as the 1912 English language hymnal (Evangelical Lutheran Hymn Book with Tunes 274). The compilers of the 1941 The Lutheran Hymnal adopted the 1863 Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) translation with its broader wording against all spiritual and physical enemies of the Church (TLH 261). The LCMS Commission on Worship retained the Winkworth translation in LSB, with some language style updates.
Dr. Luther’s original text contained three stanzas. Through the years, several individuals added stanzas to the hymn, most notably Justus Jonas (1493-1555), Reformation-era theologian and friend of and collaborator with Dr. Luther. While the Jonas stanzas were included in the 1912 hymnal described above, TLH, by adopting the Winkworth translation, retained only Dr. Luther’s three original stanzas.
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast is a Trinitarian hymn. The first stanza is an appeal to God the Father to curb the attacks on the souls and bodies of His people. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, Satan has been defeated and can no longer destroy Jesus and His Church. Yet, he continues to attempt to snatch individuals away (Revelation 12), using earthly means to do so. Examples of such means in our times include false doctrine in the guise both of church and of secular humanism, physical attacks from groups like ISIS, and yes, even pandemics, which instill fear and make it more difficult for Christians to jointly put on the whole armor of God to stand against the schemes of the devil (Ephesians 6:11). On our own, we are unable to resist; as in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s Kingdom come to and remain with us, and that His will be done, thus breaking and hindering “every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come.” (SC III 2nd and 3rd Petitions) We pray further that God guard us from temptation and deliver us from every evil (SC III 6th and 7th Petitions).
The second stanza of Lord, Keep Us Steadfast, is an appeal to God the Son to make His power known and defend His Church against her enemies. Jesus’ power here is the power to save us and defeat the evil one and his minions, our enemies (Psalm 3). The glory of His saving power was manifest in His time of weakness on the Cross (John 19:30, Revelation 12:11; SC II Second Article). It is thus in our times of weakness that, like Paul, we most clearly perceive all that He has done for us (2 Corinthians 5b-10). Our resurrected and ascended Lord reigns in power into eternity, still bearing the scars of His crucifixion (Revelation 5:6). As Lord of Lords, His proper work is that of His steadfast salvific love (Psalm 136:3). As we pray in this stanza for Jesus to defend His Church, we pray with confidence, knowing that He has promised to do so (Matthew 16:18)! Furthermore, as we join the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven in singing the Gloria, the Sanctus and the great hymns of the Church, we know that by God’s grace, we are getting a foretaste of that which we will be doing into eternity (Revelation 4, 5, 11, 15, 19).
The third stanza is an appeal to the God the Holy Spirit, the “Comforter of priceless worth,” to send peace and unity on earth. The peace for which we pray is Jesus’ peace, namely that wholeness that comes with reconciliation to the Father (John 15:6, 27-29). The unity for which we pray is unity in God’s Truth, which only the Holy Spirit can provide (John 16:7-11; SC II Third Article). By gathering us regularly to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation, the Holy Spirit supports us in our bitter fight against the evil one, as He leads us out of death to life (Ephesians 4:4-16; Romans 8:10-11).
The name of the tune, Erhalt uns, Herr (“Preserve us, Lord”) is drawn from the first three words of the German text of the hymn. Most scholars argue that the tune was composed by Dr. Luther. The tune originated in the mediaeval plainsong chant that accompanied the hymn Veni redemptor gentium (“Come, Redeemer of the Nations”) written by Ambrose of Milan (339-397). Dr. Luther would have learned this well-known Advent chant during his formative years in the Latin school, and is one of many such chants he later adopted into his hymnody. In that manner, he helped to get congregations to begin singing, by building on what they already knew. Dr. Luther’s first variation on the tune was to accompany his 1523/1524 Advent hymn Savior of the Nations, Come (LSB 332), a literal translation of the Ambrose hymn. His second variation was to accompany his late 1520s translation of the Latin antiphon Grant Peace, We Pray, in Mercy, Lord (LSB 778; also written in response to a threat from the Turks), and his third, Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word. There is speculation that Dr. Luther deliberately tied together a hymn about the salvation of the heathen (i.e. “the nations”) to those addressing the threat from the Muslim armies. While the tunes sound very similar, thus facilitating their learning, each is uniquely its own, testament to Dr. Luther’s musical skills.
Lord, Keep Us Steadfast continues to be one of the most popular and well-loved hymns in our Lutheran hymnody, widely sung by God’s children of all ages. In congregations following the three-year lectionary, it is appointed Chief Hymn for Proper 15 in Year C and Proper 21 in Year A. It is also deemed appropriate for Reformation Day, ordinations, installation, and end of service. Of note, in today’s Germany, congregations commonly sing Lord, Keep Us Steadfast, leading right into Grant Peace (using the LSB 778 tune, as noted above), to conclude the Divine Service. In our current time of stress, the words of this hymn have taken on added meaning for us, similar to that in early 1540s Wittenberg, as in these words, we clearly see God drawing us to Him. It is meet and right to sing Lord, Keep Us Steadfast often, even daily and multiple times daily, in our personal and family devotions. It is meet and right to sing it boldly and confidently, knowing that God has promised a firm “yes” answer to all of these petitions! He will keep us steadfast in His Word! He will curb the evil one and his minions! He will defend His church and bring her into eternity! He will send His peace and unity, support us and bring us from death to life! To Him alone be the glory. Amen.
Heartfelt thanks to Kantor Richard Resch, for his very helpful review and comments.
Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, John D. Vieker, eds. Lutheran Service Book Companion to the Hymns, Volumes 1 and 2 (St. Louis: CPH, 2019)
Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music, Principles and Implications (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017)
Ulrich S. Leupold, ed. Luther’s Works, Volume 53, Liturgy and Hymns (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965)