Reading Time: 4 mins

The Meaning I Missed in A Mighty Fortress

Reading Time: 4 mins

This hymn is not for people who feel strong, but those who are weak.

This article was written by guest contributor, Amy Mantravadi

As a child, I knew little about Martin Luther. I was raised in a Baptist turned non-denominational congregation, the sort of group with great respect for the Bible but little interest in historical theology. From them, I learned that Luther had nailed a list of demands to a door, and the Catholics had not taken kindly to his act of defiance. I knew he was from a place called Wittenberg, and he particularly liked the verse that read, “The just shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17, KJV)

I also knew him as the writer of the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” Originally published in German as “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” it is undoubtedly his most famous song in the English-speaking world. Many translations have been attempted over the years: the one most favored in non-Lutheran congregations was produced by Frederick H. Hedge in 1852. This is the version I grew up singing, with its somewhat antiquated talk of bulwarks, mortal ills, and kindred. It was only in adulthood, as I studied Luther’s theology and attempted to learn the German language, that I realized how Hedge’s translation sacrifices some of the original meaning. Two differences provide insights into Luther’s thinking.

The Devil’s Fall

The first instance comes in the third stanza, where Hedge writes of Satan, “For lo! his doom is sure, / One little word shall fell him.” [1] I always assumed this was a reference to the final defeat of the devil at the end of time, as described in Revelation chapter twenty. “That’s great that God is going to put an end to Satan eventually,” I thought, “but does that really help me in the here and now?” As I struggled my way through the Christian life, facing trials and temptations, this part of Hedge’s translation felt somewhat hollow, lacking the comfort I needed in the present.

The real problem was the word “shall,” which is placed in the future tense. Yes, God is going to defeat Satan in the future, but he has also defeated him in the past, and in the present. This fact is captured in Luther’s original phrasing, which reads, “Ein Wörtlein kann ihn fällen.” [2] (Literally meaning, “A little word can fell him.”) Luther was not referring to something that will happen at the end of time, but something, through God’s word, that happens for every Christian now. 

When God’s word is spoken, the Holy Spirit works to both engender faith in our heavenly Father’s divine promises and speak truth against the devil, breaking his power over us. What is the devil’s power but accusation? He is the accuser of old who torments our consciences, telling us not to trust in what Christ has done for us. Luther always taught that we must proclaim a word of truth against such mental convulsions.

Thus we must regard Baptism and make it profitable to ourselves, that when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say: Nevertheless I am baptized; but if I am baptized, it is promised me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body. [3]

Losing Loved Ones

The second place where Hedge’s translation obscures Luther’s meaning comes in the final stanza, which reads, “Let goods and kindred go, / This mortal life also.” Luther is here considering the possibility of his own martyrdom: that he will be forced to leave his earthly possessions and loved ones behind, suffering a violent death at the hands of persecutors. However, there is a more personal touch that is missing in the popular English translation.

Nehmen sie uns den Leib, / Gut, Ehr’, Kind und Weib,” Luther wrote, meaning, “They take our body, / Goods, honor, child and wife.” Hedge’s translation removes the concept of honor, which likely had a greater resonance for Luther’s original audience than it does for us today. Hedge also elects for the general term “kindred” rather than the more specific “child and wife.” Why is that significant? Because Luther wrote these words from the perspective of a father and husband. He had waited forty-two years to enter those vocations, and they were dear to him.

Around the time “Ein feste Burg” was written, a plague swept through Wittenberg. If the normal dangers of sixteenth century life had not convinced Luther that he might lose his wife and child any day, a house full of ill congregants expiring at an alarming rate surely pressed the point home. For many years, he had worried about losing his own life, goods, and honor. Now, he had something else to fear: the potential loss of his beloved Katharina and their son, Hans. Perhaps he had already suffered the early death of his second child, Elisabeth, by the time he penned the hymn. He must have worried daily about losing his wife and child, either by his departure or theirs. Unable to control the chaotic world in which he lived, he trusted in the one who is sovereign over all.

His last recorded words to his wife, written when he had reached the end of his strength, were, “I commend you to God.” [4] That seems to have been his philosophy throughout the entirety of their marriage.

Strength for the Weak

“A Mighty Fortress is our God” is exceptionally bold in its proclamations. We tend to favor it as a testament to the strength of Reformation ideals, or God’s strength over the devil, or the strength of Christ’s world-conquering kingdom. But it is also the work of a man who struggled daily against his doubts, plagued by anxiety, seeking a divine word to drive the devil away: a husband and father who feared for the people he loved most in this world. 

We too are people of flaws and weaknesses. We wonder if we will survive long enough to see our grandchildren reach certain milestones. We fear the world in which our children will be forced to live, and we long for an end to plague and war.

This hymn is not for people who feel strong, but those who are weak. It is for Christians who work out their salvation in fear and trembling, stumbling along the straight and narrow path, yet called and held by the one who says, “Follow me.” It is in acknowledging our limitations that we can rest in the strength of the limitless one. That is what it means for God to be “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).


Amy Mantravadi lives in Dayton, Ohio with her husband, Jai, and their son, Thomas. She holds a B.A. in biblical literature and political science from Taylor University and received her M.A. in international security from King's College London. In addition to writing essays on theological topics, she has published three historical fiction novels and hopes to publish two more set during the early years of the Reformation.  She also previously hosted the (A)Millennial podcast.  Amy enjoys geeking out about history, geeking out about theology, and playing with her son.