With Thanksgiving close at hand, I’ll share with you some background, meaning, and some of the words of one of Christendom’s most beloved Thanksgiving hymns.
As noted at the bottom of this hymn as printed in our hymnal, it was in 1844 that Henry Alford wrote the words to this great hymn of The Church, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” which has become, in my experience, one of the most widely used hymns for the celebration of Thanksgiving in churches throughout America to this day.
We sang it this Sunday at Prince of Peace in our Thanksgiving Service. We have our Thanksgiving Service a week early to catch more people before they leave town for the full week of Thanksgiving itself.
Take note to see if you sing it in your church in your Thanksgiving Service this Sunday or next. Not many churches have Thanksgiving Day Service any more, but those that do will surely sing this “standard” on Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps the exception is the all-contemporary Christian music service. But I suggest that you contemporary church musicians check out the contemporary adaptation of these great words and music. I found it on YouTube. Take a look.
The first stanza is the obvious celebration of the successful and abundant harvest of crops from farm fields, with the full recognition that it is God’s bountiful blessing which brings forth the life-giving harvest, which sustains His people for the year to come.
And this indeed is the catalyst for our giving thanks to God. And remember, Thanksgiving is the occasion for giving thanks to God, specifically to God, emphatically to God for all of His blessings He showers upon us. Please do not get fooled by any interpretation of this great occasion that waters down this sole meaning of the day.
On that note, I was told that children are now taught that the meaning of Thanksgiving comes from the occasion when the Pilgrims thanked the Native Americans for their help in the New World after their first harvest. Absolutely not. The Pilgrims gave thanks to God, with the gracious invitation to the Native Americans to join in both the feast and the true Thanksgiving to God. Amen.
Henry Alford, back in the mid-1800s, knew full well the importance of the harvest in the heavily agricultural nature of society. His words pour forth this great understanding of the vital relationship between the harvest and the need to give God His rightful thanks. I’ll use the Old English version here.
“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!”
So, this old-yet-timeless hymn calls us all to come. Come where? Into God’s own temple, into our churches, into His House, to bring what is rightfully His, and that is our hearts and voices of Thanksgiving to Him. Of course, for us, most of us, our reality is not the actual accomplishment of the farmland harvest.
Rather, it is the full recognition of the great generosity of God’s gifts and blessings in our lives. That starts with the gift of life itself, the love God gives us in providing Jesus as our Savior, the gift of parents, children, and grandchildren, the love we share with our dear family and friends, the talents and skills God gives us so that we can provide for ourselves and our families, the blessing of our churches, the beauty and resources of our world, the blessing and opportunities provided to us here in the United States of America, the sacrifice of those that serve to protect our rights and our freedom, the good parts of our technological age, and the list goes on and on.
What would you add to this list with blessings in your life for which you are so thankful to God?
And, by the way, we sing these great words to the beautiful and majestic tune entitled St. George’s Windsor, written by George J. Elvey, a contemporary of Henry Alford. Go to YouTube for some beautiful renderings.
There are three more stanzas to the hymn. In these Alford transitions from the material reasons for giving thanks to the more spiritual reasons. These stanzas declare “all the world is God’s own field,” in which there are both wheat and tares (weeds), a reference to this parable of Jesus. Alford declares that we are to give thanks to God that He gathers His faithful people unto Himself in heaven, where we will be “free from sorrow, free from sin.”
The final words combine the agrarian harvest with the spiritual harvest:
“There (in heaven), forever purified (free from sin),
In Your garner (“heavenly grain bin”) to abide.
Come, (here calling God to come to us) with all Your angels, come,
Raise the glorious harvest home (raise all believers in You to our home in heaven).
To that we must say, “Amen! And Amen!”
Happy Thanksgiving to you all. Be sure to give your thanks to God.