Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Warfield’s Christmas

While we’re on the subject of Christmas:

I noted in my most recent post that Geerhardus Vos fancied himself something of a poet; at the link you can see his poem on Christ’s Nativity. Vos was not unique in this predilection. One of his Princeton colleagues, B.B. Warfield, also wrote a number of poems, and at least two of them are relevant to the season.

The first, “Young Luther’s Christmas,” is about, well, Martin Luther and Christmas. Specifically, the poem concerns a story that has often been told about Luther. I give below the version found in Jean-Henri Merle d’Aubigné‘s History of the Great Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in Germany, Switzerland, etc.

The story concerns Luther as a schoolboy, first at Magedburg and then at Eisenach. It was a common custom for schoolboys to “get this bread,” i.e. literally to supply themselves with food, by going from house to house singing and hoping for sustenance in return. This appears to have been particularly common around the time of Christmas. D’Aubigné relates the following about Luther’s time in Magdeburg:

This was a severe apprenticeship for Luther. Cast upon the world at fourteen, without friends or protectors, he trembled in the presence of his masters, and in his play hours, he and some children, as poor as himself, with difficulty begged their bread. “I was accustomed,” says he, “with my companions, to beg a little food to supply our wants. One day, about Christmas time, we were going all together through the neighbouring villages, from house to house, singing in concert the usual carols on the infant Jesus, born at Bethlehem. We stopped in front of a peasant’s house which stood detached from the rest, at the extremity of the village. The peasant hearing us sing our Christmas carols, came out with some food, which he meant to give us, and asked, in a rough loud voice, ‘Where are you, boys?’ Terrified at these words, we ran away as fast as we could. We had no reason to fear, for the peasant offered us this assistance in kindness; but our hearts were no doubt become fearful from the threats and tyranny which the masters then used toward their scholars, so that we were seized with sudden fright. At last, however, as the peasant still continued to call after us, we stopped, forgot our fears, ran to him, and received the food that he offered us. It is thus,” adds Luther, “that we tremble and flee when our conscience is guilty and alarmed. Then we are afraid even of the help that is offered us, and of those who are our friends, and wish to do us good.”

Luther was not at Magdeburg for long before he was sent to Eisenach to live with relatives who, it was hoped, would be able to give him better care than he had received at Magdeburg. But this was not to be, and Luther once again found himself singing for his supper. One one of these occasions, it is related, he met Ursula Cotta:

When the young scholar was pressed with hunger, he was obliged, as at Magdeburg, to go with his school-fellows and sing in the streets to earn a morsel of bread….One day in particular, after having been repulsed from three houses, he was about to return to his lodging, when, having reached the Place St. George, he stood before the house of an honest burgher, motionless, and lost in painful reflections. Must he, for want of bread, give up his studies, and go to work with his father in the mines of Mansfield? Suddenly a door opens, a woman appears on the threshold: it is the wife of Conrad Cotta, a daughter of the burgomaster of Eilfeld. Her name was Ursula. The chronicles of Eisenach call her “the pious Shunamite,” in remembrance of her who so earnestly entreated the prophet Elijah to eat bread with her. This Christian Shunamite had more than once remarked young Martin in the assemblies of the faithful; she had been affected by the sweetness of his voice and his apparent devotion. She had heard the harsh words with which the poor scholar had been repulsed. She saw him overwhelmed with sorrow before her door; she came to his assistance, beckoned him to enter, and supplied his urgent wants.

Shortly after, he was invited to live with the Cottas; the house he may have stayed in still stands.

All of this forms the background for the poem mentioned above, “Young Luther’s Christmas,” which was published in the New York Observer on December 22, 1898. I include an image rather than a transcription.

A little over a decade later, Warfield published a short work called Four Hymns and Some Religious Verses (1910). One of the poems included in the volume is called “The Advent,”1 which I transcribe below. Like the passage from Machen’s radio address on the Atonement cited in my previous post, Warfield shows the close connection between Christ’s humiliation in his First Advent that was ordered to his redemptive death on the cross.2

The Advent

The Lord has come into His world!
“Nay, nay, that cannot be:
The world is full of noisomeness
And all iniquity;
The Lord–thrice holy is His name–
He cannot touch this thing of shame.”

The Lord has come into His world!
“Ah, then, He comes in might,
The sword of fury in His hands,
With vengeance all bedight!
O wretched world: thine end draws near,
Prepare to meet thy God, in fear!”

The Lord has come into His world!
“What? in that baby sweet?
That broken man, acquaint with grief?
Those bleeding hands and feet?
He is the Lord of all the earth,
How can he stoop to human birth?”

The Lord has come into His world!
“A slaughtered Lamb I see,
A smoking altar, on which burns
A sacrifice for me!
He comes–He comes–O blessed day!–
He comes to take my sin away!”

  1. The poem is on p. 7 at the link.
  2. Many thanks to Log College Press for making these and so many other works available.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.