Be Still My Soul
Text by: Katharina von Schlegel 1752
Translated by: Jane Borthwick 1855
Tune: Finlandia by: Jean Sibelius 1899
1 Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
2 Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
3 Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.
4 Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.
5 Be still, my soul: begin the song of praise
On earth, believing, to Thy Lord on high;
Acknowledge Him in all thy words and ways,
So shall He view thee with a well pleased eye.
Be still, my soul: the sun of life divine
Through passing clouds shall but more brightly shine.
Very little is known about our author, Catharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel. We know her birth date as October 22, 1697, but we do not know the date of her death. We do know she carried on some correspondence with Heinrich Ernst, the Count Stolberg between 1750 and 1752, and after that we know nothing. It is believed she was a “Stiftsfraulein” in the Evangelical Lutheran Stift in Cothen. A “Stift” is a type of secular nunnery which was somewhat common among Lutherans and Catholics in this area for a time. It consisted mostly of women of means as they were expected to support themselves and dedicate themselves to serving the community without regard to the recipient’s faith. However, her name does not appear in their registry of adult members. There is also some evidence showing she was connected to the small court at Cothen. The “von” in her name would indicate some level of aristocratic ancestry.
This vague information and a handful of hymns, with “Be Still My Soul” being the only one translated from German to English is all we know of this woman. We have no information as to what may have led her to write such a poignant hymn.
This hymn, which bears the German title of “Stille, mein Wille, dein Jesus hilft siegen” first appeared in 1752 in William Knapps “Evangelischer Lieder-Schatz” and is found in several other German hymnals. The original text has six stanzas. The translator, Jane Borthwick, omitted the third stanza. Miss Borthwick, along with her sister Sarah translated 114 German hymns into English and published them in their book “Hymns from the Land of Luther” in 1854. Their work is second only to Catherine Winkworth in quantity and quality.
In my research on this hymn, I did find one other tune it had been set to. But its quality and only single use led me to ignore it for this article. The only other tune this text has been set to is Jean Sibelius’s choral found in his symphonic tone poem Finlandia. To get past the Russian censors, Sibelius used titles such as “Happy Feelings at the Awakening of Finnish Spring.” “Finlandia” was thought to be too patriotic.
Thoughts on the Text
There are two passages from Psalms which are reflected in this hymn.
Psalm 46:10 “He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.””
Psalm 100:3 “Know that the LORD is God. It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.”
The context for Psalm 46 is more national than personal. It is addressed to the nations of the world, yet as members of those nations, it is still addressed to us. To be “still” means to “let go,” “slacken,” or “let drop.” Psalm 46 calls us to stop striving and to instead worship the God of creation. And Psalm 100 is echoed throughout this hymn, reminds us to whom we belong and whose pasture we reside.
“Be Still My Soul” looks at the myriad difficulties of our lives with calls to be still and remember God’s sovereignty throughout all our pain.
In the first stanza we have four hardships; grief, pain, change, and thorny ways, yet even within these we must be still.
In the second stanza we are reminded God is our guide for the future and he has the past.
From the future and past we come to the final part of our lives, even in our own deaths and those we love we are to be still.
And finally, we are to sing God’s praises from the stillness of our souls.
There are very few hymns which have become this loved this quickly since its translations and paring with Finlandia. It can be found in hymnals from nearly every tradition. And yet it speaks such remarkable truths in the simplest terms though it was written centuries ago, in a different land and a different time.