“Now Thank We All Our God”, or as the tune is known, Nun danket alle Gott, may seem to you to be a bit old-fashioned, not as good as the praise music flashy songs that are published today, which are often accompanied by drums & electric guitars, with words projected on a big screen. Do these old-fashioned songs have anything to say to our lives today? Well, maybe it would help if we know a little more about the background of how this Thanksgiving hymn was written.
The Thirty Years’ War, waged from 1618 – 1648, involved most of the countries of Europe. It was one of the most destructive conflicts in European history. Like contemporary military conflicts, religion was a motivation for the Thirty Years War, as Protestant and Catholic states battled each other, even though they were all still technically part of the Holy Roman Empire. If you have ever played the classic board game, Risk, you can see that the result of protracted conflicts is often the bankruptcy of all of the countries involved, which was true of the 30 years war. Famine and disease also decimated the populations of countries from Italy & Bohemia through the German states and the Netherlands.
Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran minister, was in Eilenburg, Saxony, during the Thirty Years’ War. The walled city of Eilenburg saw a steady stream of refugees pour through its gates. The Swedish army surrounded the city, and famine and plague were rampant. Eight hundred homes were destroyed, and the people began to perish. There was a tremendous strain on the pastors who had to conduct dozens of funerals daily. Finally, the pastors, too, succumbed, and Rinkart was the only one left—doing 50 funerals a day. When the Swedes demanded a huge ransom, Rinkart left the safety of the walls to plead for mercy. The Swedish commander, impressed by his faith and courage, lowered his demands. Soon afterward, the Thirty Years’ War ended, and Rinkart wrote this hymn for a grand celebration service. It is a testament to his faith that, after such misery, he was able to write a hymn of abiding trust and gratitude toward God.
Let us stand and join our voices in singing the first two verses of hymn # 419.
Another popular hymn comes to us from when the Dutch were fighting their War of Independence from the Catholic King Philip II of Spain. You may know this one as “We gather Together”, and at the time it was written, it was not legal to gather together for worship, except in the cathedral. It was written in 1597, in celebration of the Dutch victory over Spain, & published with a group of Dutch patriotic songs. It was not until over 250 years later that it was connected to the tune we recognize with this hymn. In 1935 “We Gather Together” was published in the Methodist hymnal. It had also been very popular with the Dutch Reformed Church in North America, and was reportedly one of the reasons for that denomination to change their policy in 1937 of only singing hymns in worship from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament. “We Gather Together” was chosen as the first hymn in their first hymnal. During World War One, many Americans had begun to see themselves in this hymn, and by World War Two, “the wicked oppressing” were understood to include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Other Christians had concerns about the militarism associated with this hymn. Julia Cady was born in New York City in 1882, & married Robert Haskell Cory in 1911, and passed away fifty years ago, in 1963. She was a Presbyterian all her life. She wrote new words in 1902 for the hymn, “We Gather Together.” Not content to leave well enough alone on re-writing words to traditional hymns, the United Church of Christ Conference Minister for Northern Illinois, Lavon Baker, adapted the traditional words of “We Gather Together” in 1992. We will sing the first verse of Julia Cory’s revision for our Song of Dedication after the Offering this morning, so let’s start with verses two and three of hymn #420, and then turn the page and sing only the 2nd and 3rd verses of hymn #421. Whether you sing out & make a joyful noise, or listen to the congregation improvising on the notes that Ramona is playing on the organ, I invite you to reflect on the themes of Thanksgiving in these texts.
So, moving forward in history past the European wars in the 16th & 17th centuries, we find a very popular Thanksgiving hymn that gives thanks for the harvest. Fr. Henry Alford was very dedicated to living his faith and teaching about the Bible in his small-town parish. In college he enjoyed a close relationship with Alfred Lord Tennyson, and is known among biblical scholars for his commentary on the New Testament. But among most Christians, he is known as the author of the hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”. In Fr. Alford’s original wording, he makes parallels between the harvest of grain and all humanity. He refers to the parable of Jesus when weeds are planted along with the wheat, and at the harvest the weeds are thrown into the fire. Then in verse four, “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.” So it is a hymn using the harvest of grain as a metaphor for Christians going to heaven when we die. In our UCC hymnal, The New Century Hymnal, Fr. Alford’s lyrics are combined with the poetry of a classically-educated woman, who was a naturalist, a feminist, and who lived about a hundred years before Father Henry Alford. Anna Laetitia Barbauld was born in 1743, her father was the headmaster of a school called The Dissenting Academy, and she grew up in a house used for a Boys’ School. She was probably what we might call a tomboy, as she learned how to compete with the boys, and she demanded that her father teach her Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and other subjects which were considered unsuitable for women at the time. When she was 15 years old, her family moved when her father was appointed to a teaching position at an academy known as the Athens of the North for its stimulating intellectual atmosphere. Anna Laetitia may have been influenced by Natural Philosophy and Unitarian Theology there. As an adult she published letters & pamphlets in favor of religious liberty, against the sin of war, and in 1791 against slavery. In 1812 she published her final political treatise, arguing that after a decade of wars with Napoleon, the British Empire was going into decline and the American empire was becoming the new world superpower. Britain’s wealth and fame will go to America, and Britain will become nothing but an empty ruin. It was not well-received by the English audience! So, in thanksgiving for these two authors whose works are combined in the hymn, “Come, O Thankful People, Come”, let us sing the first two verses of hymn #422.
The Rev. Fred Green lived from 1903 until 2000; during his career as a British Methodist minister, he wrote many plays and hymns, but after he retired in 1969, his writing became even more prolific. His hymns reject fundamentalism and show his concern with social issues. Today his hymns are found in the hymn book of the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the United Methodist Hymnal, as well as in hymnbooks of many other denominations. Our New Century Hymnal pairs the lyrics with a Welsh traditional melody, so you know this one has got to be wonderful, but we will restrain ourselves to only singing verses 2 and 3 of hymn # 425.
OK, I know some of you may have noticed that we skipped right over hymn #424. It isn’t that we sing so many traditional Confucian chants every Thanksgiving, nor that I have issues with the fact that now even our hymns are “made in China”. No, I was just worried that with so much music, and so much background about the authors and their theological perspectives, maybe we would all be totally overwhelmed by singing a tune that really is not all that familiar. So, I have a brief bio to share with you about the Presbyterian minister who translated this song. Rev. Frank Price was born in China in 1895, the son of Presbyterian missionaries. He grew up in rural China, and then came to the United States to complete his formal education. When he was twenty years old, he returned to teach in Nanking, and traveled with Chinese laborers to France at the end of World War One. Because he was a seminary professor from 1923 to 1952, he was able to develop a friendship with General Chiang Kai-shek, and was a member of the Chinese delegation to the United Nations Organizational Conference in 1945. However, following the communist victory in China’s civil war in 1949, he was no longer respected by the new Chinese government. After he was expelled from China, he published an English translation of Chinese hymns in 1953 and in 1957 wrote a book titled, Marx Meets Christ. Compared to reading that book, singing hymn #424 should be easy. Lets just sing verses 1 & 2 of “Praise Our God Above.”
I hope that you have gained some insights and possibly a deeper appreciation for some of these traditional Thanksgiving hymns, and their modern lyrics. When we remember what sorts of experiences these saints had in the times and places where they lived, we may be able to develop a sense of historical perspective, as well as theological insights into the breadth and depth of how much we all have to be thankful for at this time. Whether the hymns are familiar or totally strange, I hope you continue to deepen your appreciation for the poets who wrote them and are still writing them.
In tonight’s Community Thanksgiving Service, there will be a variety of music, hopefully not all of it totally familiar, but all of it will open our hearts to experience a deep gratitude for the varieties of blessings that we enjoy.
Grace and Peace. Amen.