The Sweet Rose of Brandenburg – Luisa Henrietta


Scholars may debate the veracity of Luisa Henrietta’s authorship of “Jesus, meine Zuversicht,” but the esteemed church historian J. I. Good had no such reservations. Whether she penned those famous lines or not, her story remains one of the most heart-wrenching and compelling of The Thirty Years War.

What Miriam was among the Israelites, Electress Luisa Henrietta of Brandenburg was to the Reformed, the first sweet singer among the women of Israel. A Dutch princess of the famous line of Orange, that ruled the Netherlands, she was born November 27, 1627, at The Hague in Holland, and was descended from the great families of William of Orange and Coligny. She was thus of noble blood, but made nobler by grace.

Her religious training she received from Rivet, a Reformed theologian. She loved to read the Bible and it became her constant companion. Many passages, especially from Isaiah, remained in her memory as the result of her early education.

When she was about eighteen years of age, the young Elector of Brandenburg, whose capital was at Berlin, was in western Germany busily watching the negotiations that closed the Thirty Years’ War. And he also began negotiations of love, as well as of peace. As he had been reared partly in Holland, he knew her when a little girl, and had heard of her beauty as a young lady. This brave young prince therefore proposed to this beautiful princess and was accepted. Of course there were difficulties in the way, for when did the course of true love run smooth? The Thirty Years’ War had so impoverished his land that he had to borrow 3,000 thalers of his mother in order to be married. And Luisa, too, was restrained somewhat by her father’s failing health. But the wedding nevertheless came off December 7, 1646, with great splendor, as was becoming princes of such high rank. The bride wore a costly dress of silver brocade, rich with Brabant lace. A crown of brilliants and pearls adorned her head. The long train of her dress was carried by six ladies of noble birth.

But the bride did not go with her husband to Germany, on account of the ill health of her father. She remained faithfully with him until he died, three months after her wedding. After his death she accompanied her husband to Cleve in western Germany. Here her first child was born. The peace of Westphalia having closed the Thirty Years’ War, the Elector in the autumn of 1648 started for his capital in eastern Germany. On the journey their child died at Wesel, to the great sorrow of the parents. The journey across Germany to Berlin lasted six months and was a very sad one. It was sad to her because of the loss of her child, but it was made all the sadder because of the terrible devastation of the country through which they passed, caused by the awful Thirty Years’ War. The roads were in a frightful condition, the fields were desolate, the people were poor and many of them starving. Their sufferings, added to her sorrows, made the journey very sad, giving her the inspiration to write her immortal hymn, “Jesus, meine Zuversicht.” [see page 20 for an article about this hymn’s authorship.]

Jesus, my Redeemer, lives,
Christ, my trust, is dead no more!
In the strength this knowledge gives,
Shall not all my fears be o’er;
Calm, though death’s long night be fraught
Still with many an anxious thought?

Jesus, my Redeemer, lives,
And His life I soon shall see;
Bright the hope this promise gives;
Where He is, I too shall be.
Shall I fear Him? Can the head
Rise and leave the members dead?

How grandly she rises over her sorrows in this hymn, and how sweetly she comforts others.
On the terrible night of March 18 and 19, 1848, when the German throne trembled in the throes of the Revolution, in the midst of the firing of guns and the thunder of artillery, over the wild tumult of the insurrection, the bells in the church tower at Potsdam played “Jesus, meine Zuversicht.” It was a voice of comfort to many anxious hearts. And a few days later it again sounded forth from the castle, as 187 coffins of the fallen were escorted to their graves by 20,000 citizens. In the war of 1870 this hymn was a source of great comfort in the German army. The music books of many bands contained only two sacred tunes. One was “Nun danket alle Gott” (Now thank we all our God), and this hymn.

Marriage of the Brandenburg Elector, by Johannes Mijtens, 1646

When Ziegenbalg, the first of the German missionaries to go to the East Indies in the early 18th century, lay dying, he called his friends to him, and in that distant land, as they stood around his bed, he asked them to sing “Jesus, meine Zuversicht.” As they sang it, it gave him a look beyond the grave into heaven, and he said, “There is a light before my eyes as if the sun shone into my face.” His spirit rose to heaven on the wings of that hymn. It is one of the great funeral hymns of the German language.

Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg

It is no wonder that Luisa Henrietta could write such a hymn. Her pious life gave the inspiration for it.

Though her husband made her quite comfortable in Berlin, she was not fond of the pomp of court life. Her tastes were simple, and her heart full of love to Christ. She preferred a quieter home, where she could meditate on her God. It happened, that while out hunting with her husband, she expressed herself as delighted with the location of an old hunting castle north of Berlin. Her kind husband, ever ready to satisfy her slightest wish, presented it to her, together with the neighboring district. He began building a castle there which was finished in 1652. She then made this her home, and when she moved there, she gave it the name of Oranienburg (Orange-castle), naming it after her family, the family of Orange-Nassau. Here, separated from the world, she could live a quiet and religious life.

This is the place which is associated especially with her life and works. She labored to make the district around the castle as productive as possible. She imported skilled gardeners from Holland and founded quite a Dutch colony there. Among other things she introduced the cultivation of the potato from Holland, (this proved to be a great boon to the Germans, who had become so poor through the devastations of the Thirty Years’ War), and soon the cultivation of the potato became universal. She was always doing good. She did not allow a single day to pass without doing some act of kindness to her people. The primary schools, which had been swept away by the war, she re-founded. As a result she became a great favorite among the people. Many of the girls were named after her. As late as half a century ago, her name was a favorite one, and her portrait was still to be found on the walls of many farmers’ houses. In this rural palace she lived in religious quietness. She was very diligent in her devotions. Much of her time was taken up in singing, reading of the Scriptures, and other religious exercises. She was always at church service, and it is said she made it a rule never to look into a mirror before going to church lest pride and fashion would disturb her thoughts.

Her health, however, was not good since the death of her first child. This was aggravated by anxiety for the future of her house. She feared lest if she had no heir, the house of Brandenburg would become Catholic, and terrible wars would result. This so preyed on her mind that she finally went to her husband and suggested a divorce, an act which reveals her wonderfully self-denying character, for she was willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her land. But her noble husband refused, and a few years later God gave her a son. This son was born on a Tuesday, and ever after every Tuesday became a sacred day, for she spent it in fasting, prayer and thanksgiving, in commemoration of the event. In 1665 she opened an orphanage at Oranienburg as a thank-offering for the gift of a son.

During the wars that followed, she was her husband’s firm support and adviser. In spite of the rough roads and the dangers of the war, she went with him on his journeys. Thus during the Swedish war, when he had to go to Königsberg, she bravely went along, although the roads were in such a frightful condition that they could travel only eight miles in two days. The war ravaged Brandenburg so fearfully that no less than 31 towns were burned and 30,000 inhabitants murdered. These terrible events preyed on her mind, so that she could not sleep, and she suffered much from terrible dreams. During the war she cared for the spiritual condition of the soldiers and ordered that a New Testament and Psalms be given to every soldier.

While on a visit to western Germany, where she contracted a cold which produced a severe cough. She then went to her native land of Holland and felt better, but, although the weather was cold, she never gave up attending church. As she came out of church on March 14, she said to her lady in waiting that she feared she might never live to get back to Berlin.

Friedrich Spanheim

Finally after Easter she started for Berlin, because she wanted to see her husband and his children once more before she died. The journey was a long and rough one. She became weaker on the way. When she arrived at Hamm in Westphalia, she thought she would die, but prayed God most earnestly to spare her life that she might see her husband again at Berlin, and then she would say, “Now, Lord, lettest thou thy handmaiden depart in peace.” Her prayer was granted. Her husband came to meet her as far as Halberstadt. The rest of the journey she had to make in a sedan chair.

She was, however, greatly comforted all through the journey by the presence of Spanheim, one of the most renowned theologians of that time. One day he preached to her on the words, “God with us.” She beautifully applied them to her own case. “‘God with us,’ what a comfort in the sorrows of solitude, in dangerous waters, in the house of sorrow.”

At last she arrived at Berlin. But in spite of all the prayers for her dear life, her weakness became greater and greater. The Elector often watched beside her and comforted her by repeating Scripture texts. Not long before her death her chaplain asked her if she felt that God was gracious. She answered, “Yes.” That testimony was her last word, for she died soon after, on June 28, 1667. The whole land mourned her departure. Stosch preached her funeral sermon on Job 13:15, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”

Few princesses were so loved as she. Her memory still remains green among the German people. Nearly two hundred years after her death, the town of Oranienburg erected a monument to her. It is a life-size statue, standing on a granite pedestal nine feet high. Her head is adorned with a diamond. In her right hand is a roll—the manuscript of the founding of the orphanage there. Her earthly beauty and her heavenly piety made her one of the saints of the Reformed Church. Like Abel, she being dead, yet speaketh, for she has gained an earthly immortality through her hymn, as well as a heavenly immortality with her Savior.

Oranienburg Palace. Photo courtesy Alexander Müller