At the American Society of Church History conference in April, Mary Jane Haemig presented an interesting paper discussing how German-American churches in Minnesota commemorated Reformation Day in 1917. It was the four hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous posterizing of a church door in Wittenberg–I like to imagine it looked something like this–but the context was challenging given that the United States was currently as at war with Germany. As I mentioned in a previous post, German-Americans were treated poorly during World War 1, enduring both legal sanctions and unofficial harassment. Many native born Americans suspected them of harboring sympathies for the enemy.
This left German-Americans in a bind. They were predominately Lutheran and they wanted to celebrate the man who gave birth to their religious tradition. But Luther, it must be admitted, was quite distinctly German. Celebrating a German national hero could have further alienated already suspicious non-German neighbors. German-Americans tried to diffuse any tension by emphasizing the ways in which Luther contributed to the development of modern democracy and religious freedom. In that same spirit, the Reformation Day celebrations featured many familiar patriotic songs like the National Anthem.
One of the more popular songs sung that day is a bit more obscure unless you happen to be from a Lutheran background. The hymn is based on a poem written in German, “Gott segne Sachsenland” (God save Saxony). The author was Siegfried August Mahlmann, a minor but popular 19th century German poet. Mahlmann set the text to the tune of the British anthem “God Save the King.” After all, why should only the British get to claim that God would “scatter [the King’s] enemies, and make them fall, confound their politics, [and] frustrate their knavish tricks”? God loves Saxons too!
What’s fascinating about the poem is its timing. It was written in 1815 at the tail end of the Napoleonic Wars. Most Americans who are somewhat familiar with the period think of the wars as a clash primarily between Britain and France. It’s easy to forget that almost all of Europe was involved. Saxony had a particularly rough go of it. In 1813 it was the site of French, Russian, and Prussian military campaigns. At the time Saxony, under its ruler Frederick Augustus I, was allied with Napoleon, albeit quite reluctantly having fought against France several years earlier. When Napoleon (and the Saxon Army) were decisively defeated at the Battle of Leipzig that year, Frederick Augustus was taken into captivity by the Prussians, who had designs on Saxon territory. After a year and a half in prison, the Prussians released Frederick and forced him to sign a treaty giving roughly half of Saxony to Prussia. Still, when Frederick returned home, he was hailed as a hero who had saved Saxony from complete destruction.
Mahlmann’s poem was a hymn to Saxon nationalism. He hailed Frederick as the good King and Father who had stood true through storm and night. Mahlmann’s patriotism isn’t surprising given that he himself had spent time in a French prison in 1813. After years caught between the equally rapacious French and Prussians, Saxony had finally seen the dawn of a new era, or so they hoped. The song’s story might have ended there as a minor monument to a forgotten nationalist sentiment (Saxony would be subsumed by the Second German Reich sixty years later). But in 1844 American musician John Sullivan Dwight translated the hymn, removed the Saxony-specific stanzas, and gave the song a second life. Many Lutheran and Episcopalian hymnbooks still include it. Here is Dwight’s version:
God bless our native land!
Firm may she ever stand,
Through storm and night;
When the wild tempests rave,
Ruler of wind and wave,
Do Thou our country save
By Thy great might.
For her our prayers shall rise
To God, above the skies;
On Him we wait;
Thou Who art ever nigh,
Guarding with watchful eye,
To Thee aloud we cry,
God save the State.
God no longer saved the King of Britain or the King of Saxony, but rather the State, a more fitting designee for divine authority in the democratically-minded United States. Thus when German-Americans sang the song with gusto in 1917, they were able to simultaneously declare their loyalty to the American government and assert that they belonged in their new native land.
Let’s recap. A song proclaiming that God had a special relationship to England became an ode to God’s protection of Saxony. Then an American repurposed it as an appeal for God’s preservation of the US federal government. A generation or so later, German-American immigrants sang it to show that they were as loyal to America as any native born citizen. I’m reminded of a J. C. Squire poem:
God heard the embattled nations sing and shout,
“Gott strafe England!” and “God save the King!”
God this, God that, and God the other thing.
“Good God!” said God, “I’ve got my work cut out!”