Hymns: Three Thanksgiving Favorites

Because this Thursday is Thanksgiving Day in the United States, I decided to write about a favorite Thanksgiving hymn, continuing my series of posts about favorite hymns. And then I couldn’t choose just one, so today we’ll look at three of my favorites. One is a hymn of small-T thanksgiving that’s also (in my experience) most often sung this time of year, one is a capital-T Thanksgiving hymn because it is built around the image of the harvest as well as explicit gratitude, and the third is one that’s merely primarily sung at Thanksgiving, and is the sort of thing the Pilgrims (being Puritans) would certainly have endorsed (with one caveat I’ll mention below).

We’ll begin with the one I now think of as most obvious.

Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms
Hath blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace,
And guide us when perplexed,
And free us from all ills
In this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God
The Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reigns
With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God,
Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.

My only complaint about this hymn is that it is so short, with only three verses including the doxology; it is such a splendid hymn in every other respect that I wish it were a verse or two longer. Not that this is something we can blame hymnal editors, or Catherine Winkworth (the translator of this and so many other German chorales, to whom we owe a great debt), as it’s in three verses in the original.

Like with most great hymns, there’s so much good here that I scarcely know where to begin. I like Winkworth’s phrasing of the expansiveness of God’s provision: “from our mothers’ arms Hath blest us …” And I like the way it subtly makes the point, at the end of that stanza, that God himself is an even greater blessing than everything he has given us.

As a poet, I find that there are a few points where Winkworth’s verse stands out to me as technically interesting. Many of the rhymes are the sort of ordinary word-pairings that come up over and over in rhyming poetry, and that I may have used myself at some point or another—”voices” and “rejoices,” “near us” and “cheer us,” “way” and “today,” for example. But in the second stanza she rhymes “perplexed” and “the next,” a choice of words that I don’t think I would ever have thought of (even with electronic rhyming dictionaries), but that fits the context perfectly. I also like how, in the doxology, she stretches the clause about the Holy Spirit out to both fill out the meter and provide a rhyme, while still making the stanza follow the traditional formula.

My experience as a poet also makes me amazed and fills me with wonder at the faith of Martin Rinkart, the author of the German text. He wrote this hymn after living through the horrors (and I use that word advisedly) and devastation of the Thirty Years’ War. If a man who has lived through a time of such suffering and want can write that God has given “countless gifts of love” from early childhood throughout all of life, what right have I to give lesser thanks for the luxurious surroundings in which I find myself? And when he prayed that God would “free us from all ills In this world and the next,” he knew what sorts of “ills” he was talking about.

As with so many of the best German chorales, the music is also part of the appeal, nearly ideally suited to the text, and embellishing it without drawing attention from the text to the music or getting in the way of the text. I particularly like how Crüger’s harmonization gives each part a few “flourishes,” trading the embellishments back and forth over the course of each verse.

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home:
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide
For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come,
Raise the song of harvest home.

All the world is God’s own field,
Fruit unto his praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown,
Unto joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade, and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
Wholesome grain and pure may be.

For the Lord our God shall come,
And shall take his harvest home;
From his field shall in that day
All offenses purge away;
Give his angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store
In his garner evermore.

Even so, Lord, quickly come
Bring thy final harvest home;
Gather thou thy people in,
Free from sorrow, free from sin;
There, forever purified,
In thy presence to abide;
Come, with all thine angels, come,
Raise the glorious harvest home.

I like this hymn partly because it takes an image that the Bible uses, and the points that the Bible uses that image to make, and both retells them and responds to them. Growing up, I may have liked it mostly because of the mouthful-phrases like “gather thou thy” (which I still think is fun to sing), but later I came to primarily value the message of the text.

In the circles in which I move nowadays, I commonly hear complaints about how “songs about the blood” are “getting taken out of hymnbooks” and aren’t getting sung anymore in so many churches. But songs about the judgment to come are a similarly vanishing breed; this one is one of the best I know, but is usually only sung the week of Thanksgiving, and then usually only the first, or occasionally the first and last, verse.

Unlike the other two hymns I’m talking about today, I’m not so attached to the tune this is usually sung to. It suits the text well, doesn’t get in the way, and provides a few opportunities for embellishment, but I can easily imagine there being a better tune—though I’ve met this text in different settings in a few “retuned hymns” albums, and none measured up to the standard of the usual tune.

We gather together
to ask the Lord’s blessing;
he chastens and hastens
his will to make known.
The wicked oppressing
now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to his name,
he forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us,
our God with us joining,
ordaining, maintaining
his kingdom divine;
so from the beginning
the fight we were winning;
thou, Lord, wast at our side,
all glory be thine!

We all do extol thee,
thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still
our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation
escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised!
O Lord, make us free!

This hymn gets grouped with “Thanksgiving hymns,” and I’m grateful for it because I’d rarely get to sing it outside our family otherwise, but that’s not really its proper classification. It does include thanksgiving and grateful praise, but there’s so much more: praise for deliverance, faith in God’s benevolent and omnipotent Providence, and prayer for further relief.

I don’t know about the original—since, like so many of my favorite hymns, this is a translation—but the construction of the poetry of this hymn really appeals to my ear. Not content with the usual pattern of making pairs of lines in each verse rhyme with each other (“blessing” and “distressing” in the first stanza, for example), there are subtle internal rhymes throughout. It’s so subtle, in fact, that it’s an effect I didn’t notice until I compared the version we sung at college, in a fairly recent hymnal that included many alterations to hymn texts, with the version in our hymnals at home. “Our voices united,” the beginning of that hymnal’s second verse, doesn’t sound the same as “Beside us to guide us” … and then I thought through the rest of the hymn and saw the same pattern of repeated sounds.

And this hymn is another where I’m very fond of the tune. It’s a simple melody, well-suited to the text, and the harmonization is straightforward enough to sing but not the sort of simplistic rotation through only a few chords that I’ve come to expect from nineteenth- and twentieth-century “hymns.”

Next week—the last day of the year on the Christian liturgical calendar—I plan to post my annual “year-end summary” of the “miscellaneous essays” I’ve posted this year on the blog. And the next several weeks after that—the Saturdays in Advent—I plan to celebrate by continuing this series with some favorite Advent hymns. The more regular schedule will resume, God willing, thereafter.

These are, I think, my three favorite Thanksgiving hymns. Are you as fond of these as I am? What are your favorites?

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