This hymn was first written by a German woman, translated by a Scottish woman a century later, then a Welsh professor set the words to a national tune by a Finnish man. Four nationalities and 175 years brewed the song which we know and love today.
Katharina A. von Schlegel, 1752
Translated by Jane Borthwick, 1855
Author Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel (1697-unknown) wrote this verse in 1752 at the time of German pietism. Little is known about von Schlegel. It is thought she was a leading female hymn writer of this time and it is possible she may have become a Lutheran nun. Hawn describes German pietism was a movement marked by “faithfulness to Scripture, personal experience, and deep emotional expression,” all which can be seen in Be Still My Soul.
Scottish Jane Borthwick was key in translating many of the German hymns to English. She translated the text in the 1850’s, a century after it was written.
FINLANDIA, Jean Sibelius, 1899
FINLANDIA was written by Jean Sibelius in 1899 as a quiet protest against the censorship of the Russian Empire. It was performed under many different names in order to avoid censure, as FINLANDIA would have appeared too patriotic.
It was finally Welsh Oxford-trained music professor David Evans who paired the tune to the text for the Revised Church Hynmary (London, 1927).
This hymn was a favorite of Chariots of Fire Eric Liddell. Liddell became a missionary to China where he was imprisoned during WWII. It is said that he taught this hymn to others in prison camp, where he later died.
It is also possible that hymnist von Schlegel was attached to the court of the duke Anhalt-Köthen, a court where Johann Sebastian Bach was musical director from 1717 to 1723.
This hymn’s history saw German pietism, Scottish protestantism, Finnish nationalism, and Welsh hymnary spanning the time period from 1752 to 1927. It was finally brought to the US when it was included in the The Hymnal for the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA) in 1933.
The Lutheran Hymnal #651
Hawn, Michael C. “History of Hymns: ‘Be Still My Soul.’” Discipleship Ministries. The United Methodist Church. Web. 17 July 2016.
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