meanings and origin of the term ‘God’s acre’

The term God’s acre denotes a churchyard.

It is a calque of German Gottesacker, literally God’s field, recorded in the late 15th or early 16th century as gotzacker.

(This usage of acre corresponds to its earliest meaning, which was, in Old English, a piece of tilled or arable land.)

The German term Gottesacker alludes to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, 15:35-44, which uses an image of the bodies of the departed sown like seeds in order to bear fruit at the time of resurrection. The passage in question is as follows, first in the Later Version (1395) of the Wycliffe Bible, then—for clarity—in the King James Version (1611):

Later Version of the Wycliffe Bible—from The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, with the Apocryphal books, in the earliest English versions made from the Latin Vulgate by John Wycliffe and his followers (Volume 4 – Oxford, 1850):
35 But summan seith, Hou schulen deed men rise aȝen, or in what maner bodi schulen thei come?
36 Vnwise man, that thing that thou sowist, is not quykened, but it die first;
37 and that thing that thou sowist, `thou sowist not the bodi that is to come, but a nakid corn, as of whete, or of summe othere seedis;
38 and God ȝyueth to it a bodi, as he wole, and to ech of seedis a propir bodi.
39 Not ech fleisch is the same fleisch, but oon is of men, another is of beestis, another is of briddis, an othere of fischis.
40 And `heuenli bodies ben, and `ertheli bodies ben; but oon glorie is of heuenely bodies, and anothir is of ertheli.
41 An othere clerenesse is of the sunne, anothere clerenesse is of the moone, and anothere clerenesse is of sterris; and a sterre dyuersith fro a sterre in clerenesse.
42 And so the aȝenrisyng of deed men. It is sowun in corrupcioun, it schal rise in vncorrupcioun;
43 it is sowun in vnnoblei, it schal rise in glorie; it is sowun in infirmyte, it schal rise in vertu;
44 it is sowun a beestly bodi, it schal rise a spiritual bodi. If ther is a beestli bodi, ther is also a spiritual bodi.

King James Version – 1611:
35 But some man will say, How are the dead raysed vp? and with what body doe they come?
36 Thou foole, that which thou sowest, is not quickened except it die.
37 And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare graine, it may chance of wheate, or of some other graine.
38 But God giueth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to euery seed his owne body.
39 All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.
40 There are also celestiall bodies, and bodies terrestriall: But the glorie of the celestiall is one, and the glorie of the terrestriall is another.
41 There is one glory of the sunne, another of the moone, and another glorie of the starres: for one starre differeth from another starre in glorie.
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead, it is sowen in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.
43 It is sowen in dishonour, it is raysed in glorie: it is sowen in weakenesse, it is raysed in power:
44 It is sowen a naturall body, it is raised a spirituall bodie. There is a naturall bodie, and there is a spirituall bodie.

The earliest known user of God’s acre, the Church of England clergyman William Leigh (1550-1639), specified that the term:
– is a calque of German;
– alludes to the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

He wrote the following in The Christians Watch: Or, An Heauenly Instruction to all Christians, to expect with patience the happy day of their change by death or doome. Preached at Prestbury Church in Cheshire, at the Funerals of the right worshipfull Thomas Leigh of Adlington Esquire, the 16. of February Anno 1601 (London, 1605):

Nor is our friend Lazarus heere dead, but sleepeth, This is Dormitorium the house of sleepe; Or as the Germans call it Gods acre, wherein doe rest and are sowen the bodies of Gods Saints, till their ioyful spring of their resurrection: nor doth yt [= that] which is sowen quicken except it die*.

(* cf. First Epistle to the Corinthians, 15:36, in the Later Version of the Wycliffe Bible)

The English term God’s acre then appears in An itinerary vvritten by Fynes Moryson Gent. First in the Latine tongue, and then translated by him into English: containing his ten yeeres trauell through the tvvelue dominions of Germany, Bohmerland, Sweitzerland, Netherland, Denmarke, Poland, Jtaly, Turky, France, England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1617), by Fynes Moryson (circa 1566-1630)—the following is from a description of the German city of Leipzig:

Out of this City they haue (as many Cities in Germany haue) a beautifull place to bury their dead, called Gods-aker, vulgarly Gotts-aker,) where the chiefe Citizens buy places of buriall, proper to their families round about the Cloisters, and the common sort are buried in the midst, not couered with any building.

The Nonconformist minister Richard Steele (1629-92) used God’s acre in the figurative sense of a part of the soul set aside for God:

– In An Antidote against Distractions: Or, An Indeavour to serve the Church, in the daily Case of Wandrings in the Worship of God (London, 1667):

As wounds in the inwards are most dangerous, because hard to come at and cure. Hence it is far easier to cure a swearer of swearing, than a roving heart of its distractions. And as these sins are more dangerous, so are they very displeasing. The heart is God’s-Acre, the inclosure he keeps for his own walk and delight.

– In The Husbandmans Calling: Shewing the Excellencies, Temptations, Graces, Duties, &c. of the Christian Husbandman. Being the substance of XII. Sermons preached to a Country Congregation (London, 1668):

Remember that the heart is Gods-acre, a place prepared for the Lord, and never meets with its match but in him, who fits all its dimensions, fills all its desires, cures all its diseases, and answers all the necessities thereof.

It seems that God’s acre fell out of usage until the 19th century. The American poet and professor of modern languages Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) certainly contributed to its revival with his poem God’s Acre, first published in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review (New York City, N.Y.) of December 1841:

I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial-ground, “God’s-Acre!” It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o’er the sleeping dust.

God’s-Acre! Yes: that blessed name imparts
Comfort to those, who in the grave have sown
The seed, that they had garnered in their hearts,
Their bread of life, alas! no more their own.

Into its furrows shall we all be cast,
In the sure faith, that we shall rise again
At the great harvest, when the Archangel’s blast
Shall winnow, like a fan, the chaff and grain.

Then shall the good stand in perpetual bloom,
In the fair gardens of that second birth,
And each bright blossom mingle its perfume
With that of flowers, which never bloomed on earth.

With thy rude ploughshare, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow!
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow.

Green Gate of Paradise! let in the sun!
Unclose thy portals, that we may behold
Those fields Elysian, where bright rivers run,
And waving harvests bend like seas of gold.

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