Nicolai, Philip a distinguished German theologian, noted also as a hymnologist, was born at Mengeringhausen, in the principality of Waldeck, Germany, Aug. 10. 1556. His father was a Lutheran pastor. Philip followed him in his profession, and commenced his ministry in 1576 as assistant to him in his native village. Later he removed to Hardeck, whence he was expelled by the Papists. In 1596 he removed to Unna, in Westphalia. In 1601 he became pastor of St. Catharine's Church, Hamburg, where he died Oct. 26, 1608. While at Unna the city was visited by a fearful pestilence, which carried off more than 1400 persons. His mind becoming greatly affected by the appalling events happening around him, he was led to think much of death, heaven, and eternity. In the study of St. Augustine's City of God, and the contemplation of the eternal life, he became so absorbed that he remained cheerful and well in the midst of the surrounding distress. In 1598 he published his meditations for the benefit of others. The work is entitled Freudenspiegel des ewigen Lebens, or "The Joyous Mirror of Life Eternal." To this he appended two hymns that speedily gained a remarkable popularity. One has for a title, "Of the Voice at Midnight, and the Wise Virgins who met their Heavenly Bridegroom" — Wacht auzf ruft uns die Stimme, or, in the English version:
"Awake, awake, for night is flying; The watchmen on the heights are crying Awake, Jerusalem, at last!"
For this he composed a choral, which was afterwards used in Mendelssohn's "Elijah," to the words, "Sleepers, wake, a voice is calling." His other noted hymn was entitled "A Spiritual Bridal Song of the Believing Soul concerning her Heavenly Bridegroom" — Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern; in English, "O, morning star, how fair and bright!" The choral which he composed for this was so popular that it was often chimed by city chimes, and it was invariably used at weddings and certain joyous festivals. These are two of the three hymns which he is known to have written; the third is not preserved. They mark an aera in German hymnolegy. Hitherto the hymns of the Reformation had been distinguished by their simplicity and appropriateness to Church use; their models were the Psalms of the Old Testament, and they were addressed to God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ, or to the Holy Trinity; or, in case of hymns of sorrow and penitence, to the Savior. But from the time of these hymns of Nicolai the mystical union of the soul with Christ became a favorite subject, and a class of hymns appeared finding their scriptural ground in the Song of Solomon and the Apocalypse, and called in Germany "Hymns of the Love of Jesus." They are for the most part vivid expressions of the sense of fellowship with Christ, of his presence and tender sympathy, of personal love and gratitude to him, which are among the deepest and truest, and at the same time most secret expressions of the Christian life. Gerhardt, "the prince of German hymnists," belonged to this school. For more than fifty years it gave the prevalent tone to sacred song, and its results are still seen in some of the tenderest and most spiritual hymns in use in the churches. Nicolai's complete works were published in 1617 by Dedekenn, and consist of four volumes in German and one in Latin. Their merits are very unequal. The history of the kingdom of Christ, which he wrote in Latin, and which was translated into German by Ortus in 1598, contains an account of the history of the world and of the Church, compiled from Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Apocalypse, in which he makes, for instance, the locusts (Re 9:7) to mean the Calvinists, and announces the end of the world for the year 1670. His Freudenspiegel, to which we have already referred above, is, on the other hand, a good and remarkable work, the exegesis of which is indeed more fanciful than correct, but which evinces a thoroughly religious and evangelical spirit. In the same strain is his Theoria vitae ceterne. The remainder of his works consists of sermons, which are remarkable neither for their form nor for their substance, and of a great number of controversial pieces. The most important of these works are, Grundfeste d. Ubiquitat (1604), and De rebus antiquis Germanicarumgentium (1578). It is not, however, as a theologian, but as a hymnologist that Nicolai's fame will shine longest in the Christian Church. See Curtze, Nicolai's Leben u. Lieder (Halle, 1859); Weis, Theorie u. Gesch. des Kirchenliedes; Koch, Gesch. des
Kirchenliedes; Winkworth, Christian Singers of Germany; Miller, Singers and Songs of the Church; Schaff, Christ in Song.