Plague Hymn: Huldrych Zwingli, 1519

In 1519, a recurrence of the bubonic plague struck Switzerland. Huldrych Zwingli, pastor of the church of Grossmunster in the city of Zurich and a leader in the Protestant Reformation, was on vacation when the plague struck his city; he rushed home to minister to the sick and dying of his parish. Near the peak of the epidemic curve in mid-September of that year, Zwingli himself caught the disease, and lay seriously ill, near death, until the end of November. By the new year, he had recovered enough to resume writing his correspondence, sermons, and treatises, including a poem known as the “Pestlied” or Plague Song (“Hilf, Herr Gott, hilf in dieser Not”).

Zwingli based his poem on Psalm 65. The text moves from despair over falling sick, to resignation in the face of death, to thanksgiving for healing.

Help me, O Lord,
My strength and rock;
Lo, at the door
I hear death’s knock.

Uplift shine arm,
Once pierced for me,
That conquered death.
And set me free.

Yet, if thy voice,
In life’s midday.
Recalls my soul,
Then I obey.

In faith and hope
Earth I resign.
Secure of heaven.
For I am Thine.

My pains increase;
Haste to console;
For fear and woe
Seize body and soul.

Death is at hand.
My senses fail.
My tongue is dumb;
Now, Christ, prevail.

Lo! Satan strains
To snatch his prey;
I feel his grasp;
Must I give way?

He harms me not,
I fear no loss,
For here I lie
Beneath thy cross.

My God! My Lord!
Healed by the hand.
Upon the earth
Once more I stand.

Let sin no more
Rule over me;
My mouth shall sing
Alone to thee.

Though now delayed,
My hour will come.
Involved, perchance.
In deeper gloom.

But, let it come;
With joy I’ll rise,
And bear my yoke
Straight to the skies.

This poetic translation is taken from Philip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church (1853).

You can listen to a musical setting of the original German text here.

Edited to add a comment from Dr Elizabeth Tapscott: “Zwingli was perhaps the most musically gifted of all the sixteenth century Reformers, yet he said that no instrumental music should be allowed in church.”

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