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A look at popular Thanksgiving songs rooted in Scripturecomment (0)

November 28, 2013

A look at popular Thanksgiving songs rooted in Scripture

Thanksgiving hymns are a special part of our worship during the holiday season. However, it might surprise those who treasure these songs to find that many of them were inspired not by good times but instead by extremely difficult circumstances.

Timothy George, dean and professor of divinity history and doctrine at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, said the hymns of Thanksgiving remind him that gratitude often comes out of great struggle.

“A lot of our thanksgiving comes out of these periods of wrenching experiences: pain, suffering, sorrow, war and violence,” he said. “In the midst of all that’s swirling around us, there’s an opportunity to lift our hearts in thanksgiving to God.”

Paul Richardson, professor of hymnology at Samford, said this connection between suffering and thanksgiving is rooted in Scripture. 

George and Richardson discussed the “Hymns of Thanksgiving” in the Nov. 18, 2011, Beeson Podcast.

“From biblical times to our own, persons have often gained a clearer understanding of the presence of God when they have faced difficulties,” Richardson said. “That is reflected in song from the Psalms to those by today’s writers.”

Though the Psalter has more psalms of lament than of other types, Richardson said we should not assume that rejoicing is the only proper response to suffering or that we can only know God through suffering. 

On the contrary, he said, such songs acknowledge that “even complaint rests on trust, and it is often followed in the song of the faithful by thanksgiving.”

“The ‘righteous,’ as the term is often used in the Psalms, doesn’t refer to those whose behavior is morally upright but to those who know they are dependent on God,” Richardson said.

The tradition of giving thanks despite troubling situations carries on in many of the hymns that often find their way into Thanksgiving services.

For example, “Now Thank We All Our God,” by Martin Rinkart, was written during Germany’s Thirty Years War (1618–1648). Rinkart was a Lutheran minister in his native city of Eilenburg, a walled city that became a haven for refugees from the surrounding country. As the war progressed, the besieged city suffered from famine and then the plague, which claimed 8,000 lives in 1637, including Rinkart’s wife and other clergymen. Historians estimate that Rinkart conducted services for as many as 50 people a day until the number of daily deaths required mass burials.

In the face of these hardships, Rinkart wrote the familiar words of thanks, based on the apocryphal text Ecclesiasticus 50:22–24:

Now thank we all our God, 

with heart and hands and voices, 

Who wondrous things has done, 

in Whom this world rejoices; 

Though written originally as a table grace, today the hymn remains popular for worship, especially at Thanksgiving.

“It has always been remarkable to me that given the situation he was in, Rinkart’s chosen expression was thanks,” Richardson said. “He brings together the theological, the doxological and the very personal elements of Christian faith all in one tremendous hymn.”

Another familiar hymn, “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessings” is one Richardson calls the “quintessential” Thanksgiving hymn.

“It’s the one I think of when everyone comes home for Thanksgiving and we go to the community service,” he said, adding that the words to this familiar hymn also were written during a time of war.

During the 1500s, Dutch Protestants were forbidden by the Spanish rulers of Holland to gather for worship. The Dutch fought for independence from Spain, defeating the Spanish at the Battle of Turnhout in 1597. Though the Dutch did not gain independence until 1648, they saw the victory at Turnhout as the hand of God at work:

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.

The hymn’s second stanza includes military undertones as well, Richardson said, as the writer recognizes God’s presence during the battle: 

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!

Finally the third stanza praises God for His leadership and defense of the Dutch people, even as the writer continues to pray for God’s help in the fight for independence:

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!

Richardson also noted that around the turn of the 20th century, many Christian worshippers felt the military imagery of Theodore Baker’s translation of the original tune was too strong. For example, Baker translated the third line of the third stanza as “Thou leader in battle.” Most hymnal editors, including those of the Baptist Hymnal (2008), have chosen the less militant “triumphant” instead. 

However, in response to concerns, Julia Cady Cory used the melody of “We Gather Together” and wrote new words to the tune in 1902. The alternate version, “We Praise You, O God, Our Redeemer,” emphasizes “grateful devotion,” “praise” and adoration over the stronger message of freedom in the original. 

As both versions are included in the Baptist Hymnal, “our hymnal provides a choice,” Richardson said.

Another popular Thanksgiving hymn, “Come Ye Thankful People, Come,” by Henry Alford, celebrates God’s provision of the agricultural harvest, called Harvest Festival or Harvest Home in Britain. While the hymn expresses thanks for the harvest that is “safely gathered in / Ere the winter storms begin,” Richardson noted that in the third stanza, Alford starts preaching on two of Jesus’ parables, first the tares and wheat being sown together and then the angels harvesting the tares and throwing them into the furnace.

“So here we are gathered together in a warm church with warm feelings for the people around us, singing about casting the sinners into the fire for eternal punishment,” Richardson said. “But Alford is preaching, ‘here are today’s circumstances, and here’s how Jesus used examples from the harvest.’”

Richardson called “For the Fruit of All Creation” one of his favorite of recent hymns. The lyrics, written by Methodist minister Fred Pratt Green, are often set to the tune of the Welsh folk song “Ar Hyd y Nos” (“All Through the Night”), though they were written specifically for another tune, according to Richardson. He said the hymn brings both poetic skills and pastoral insight to contemporary issues. The first stanza talks about the agricultural harvest and the last stanza about the harvest of the spirit, but the second speaks to how God’s will is done when we live our thanks, Richardson said.

In the just reward of labor,

God’s will is done.

In the help we give our neighbor,

God’s will is done.

In our worldwide task of caring

for the hungry and despairing,

in the harvests we are sharing,

God’s will is done.

He added that the hymn ends with an expression of thanks that is both profound and poetic:

For the wonders that astound us,

for the truths that still confound us,

most of all that love has found us,

thanks be to God.

Richardson said these lines state three theological truths: the omnipotence of God, which might be evident in God’s being or God’s action; the omniscience of God, that God is greater than we can comprehend; and finally, that these are surpassed by God’s love. 

“For all of these we give thanks,” Richardson said.

To listen to the hymns, click here.

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