Elisabeth Cruciger came from Merseritz in Pomerania, which is now part of Poland. She’s usually only known as the wife of Caspar Cruciger, one of Luther’s fellow reformers.
But Elisabeth is important in her own right. Her hymn, “The Only Son from Heaven,” marks her as the first female Lutheran hymn writer. In fact, Elisabeth’s hymn was included in the very first evangelical hymnal, published in 1524.
For centuries scholars asserted that the hymn couldn’t have been written by her. They said a woman couldn’t have written such a profound text. It must have been some theologically astute man who had the proper training and, apparently, the correct plumbing to think so deeply, so Elisabeth disappeared from view. But when you know Elisabeth Cruciger’s history, a deeply faithful, brave, and intelligent woman comes into focus. With her life and her hymn, she becomes a witness, an example, and a proclaimer of the gospel to us almost 500 years later.
In the year 1500, Elisabeth Cruciger began her life in the Pomeranian town of Meseritz, which now lies within Poland’s borders. When she was a young girl her parents placed her in a convent. This wasn’t unusual. It was an act of piety to give your child to the religious life as a nun or a monk. It earned you merit before God and would help balance your spiritual accounts so that you could enter the heavenly realm when you died. Elisabeth entered the convent school of the Premonstratensians in Treptow on the Baltic Sea and eventually took her vows when she was fifteen.
Her life in the convent wouldn’t have been much different from what Luther experienced among the Augustinians. The first worship service of the day was at two in the morning, and the rest of the day was full of prayer, study, and work. There was no time to laze about of an evening. When the sun went down, it was time for bed. Elisabeth’s order was known for doing work in the outside world. These religious women supported the priests, took care of vestments and paraments, and helped educate the daughters of the nobility.
Had Elisabeth’s life extended down the same path, we would never have known she existed. But she encountered a young preacher who gave her the gospel in a way that ended her old life and awakened her with grace to a new life that wouldn’t let go of her. The preacher was Johannes Bugenhagen, whom Luther and the other reformers affectionately called “Pomeranus.” He had become known as a lecturer among the Premonstratensians. He had taken up the Humanist educational cause and argued for reforms in the church. By 1520, however, Bugenhagen had read what the upstart monk in Wittenberg had been writing, and he came around to Luther’s way of preaching law and gospel.
One of the people who heard Bugenhagen’s own preaching was Elisabeth Cruciger.
In 1521, Bugenhagen left Pomerania to go to Wittenberg, ground zero of the Reformation explosion. There he received the theological underpinnings that supported the changes he’d sought in the north. Within two years he became the pastor of the City Church in Wittenberg, where he served as Luther’s preacher and confessor. We don’t know why, but about the same time Bugenhagen came to Wittenberg, Elisabeth Cruciger left the abbey in Pomerania, abandoning both her vows and the only life she’d ever really known. There may have been other options available to her, but she chose to go to Wittenberg as well. She must have already known Bugenhagen and his family because they took her in and cared for her.
She wasn’t the only former nun who showed up in Wittenberg. We know about the nuns from Nimbschen, including Katharina von Bora, who became Luther’s wife. Something had to be done with all these women who came to town for refuge: perhaps a return to their families or work in local households.
Another good option was to find husbands for them. Elisabeth met and married a brilliant university student named Caspar Cruciger. He was four years younger, but he was quite a catch.
Because of her hymn, I think Elisabeth was his intellectual and theological match. Caspar was regarded as one of Luther’s best students and became part of Luther’s inner circle. These men helped translate scripture, wrote treatises, advised Luther, and, as Luther said, drank good Wittenberg beer while God’s word did its work. Elisabeth herself became close friends with Luther’s wife Katherina. While the men were engaged in their famous Table Talks, the women would have heard the conversations and been acquainted with all the issues – even if they didn’t have the university training. Elisabeth and Caspar’s daughter later married Luther’s oldest son Hans.
There aren’t any more details about Elisabeth Cruciger’s life except that she died young. She was only 35. We don’t know the cause of death or where she was buried, but from her hymn we can presume that she had the same kind of blessed death Luther died a decade later. Her hymn is a kind of confession of the promise God brings in Jesus to provide new life, not just in the world to come but already in this world, too.
I suspect that Elisabeth Cruciger followed Bugenhagen to Wittenberg because she was a kind of sixteenth-century Ruth. In the Old Testament, Ruth followed Naomi because she had felt her mother-in-law’s love so deeply that she was virtually pulled away from her home country of Moab, all the way to Bethlehem. Our Elisabeth had heard the kind of preaching from Bugenhagen that drew her away from her secure life in the cloister, and even from her own will. It wasn’t purposeful change, the possibility of true love, or warmer weather farther south that pulled her. It was the magnet of the gospel’s proclamation. Like Paul, she longed to be rescued from the death that clings to us in sin.
The people who edited the hymnal we use in my congregation were faithful enough to include the Cruciger hymn. They substituted Elizabeth’s last verse with a lovely doxology, but it misses the depth of the original verse. It’s a verse that shows that Elisabeth had absorbed Luther’s theology of the cross almost to the point of it becoming part of her genetic structure. She wrote, “Kill us with your goodness, / arouse us with your grace. / Make the old person weak, / so that it craves the new life / and here on earth / the senses and all desires / and thought be aimed at you.”
In his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther said, “The ‘theologian of glory’ calls the bad good and the good bad. The ‘theologian of the cross’ says what a thing is.” Elisabeth was a theologian of the cross. It seems strange to us, if not horrible, to sing of God wanting the death of his people. But Cruciger, as a theologian of the cross, knew better. She knew something important: the old sinner in us wants nothing more than to continue its existence without end, to remain in control of every moment of its future. Elisabeth wrote as one who longed for the end of sin in herself and for the beginning of the freedom of the gospel.
In Romans 6, Saint Paul says that’s exactly what happens in your baptism. “You have been baptized into Christ’s death, so that just as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, you too might walk in newness of life.”
It was 250 miles for Elisabeth Cruciger to travel from Treptow on the Baltic Sea to Wittenberg, but that was just a single step compared to the distance between death in sin to new life in Christ. The move made the rest of her life, as short as it was, into a life lived on the verge of the resurrection. She had heard the rumors of it already here on earth, and received it in full on the day in 1535 when she breathed her last breath and left her husband and family to continue in God’s Word.
When Luther explains the Third Commandment about the Sabbath day in the Catechism, he says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” In his “Freedom of a Christian,” Luther said that, if you want to become someone who serves your neighbor, the first task for you is to go where faith is bestowed through God’s Word. Elisabeth Cruciger shows us how that happens. She got a taste of the gospel in Pomerania and wanted more, so she went to the place where God promised it can be found.
The congregation where I worship is such a place. We show up because we know it’s where Elisabeth Cruciger’s prayer is fulfilled: “Let us grow in your love and knowledge, so that we might abide in faith, thus serving you in the Spirit, that we might here taste your sweetness in our hearts and always thirst for you.”