As we near the end of a surreal year of turmoil and disruption, it may be a little harder for Americans to give thanks this year (other than for a temporary cessation of political advertising). But of course God’s people have been commanded to give thanks for thousands of years, whether Noah’s family after the Deluge, the Israelites freed from the bondage who arrive in the promised land, or for John Newton when he penned Amazing Grace.
The American holiday for Thanksgiving Day dates to Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863 and became a paid holiday for government workers in 1885. Canada’s own version of the holiday (in October) dates to 1879.
For Anglicans, the holiday went unmentioned in the 1892 Book of Common Prayer. It is given Eucharistic collects and propers in the 1928, 1979 and 2019 prayer books; later editions show some reuse of lessons, but each prayer book committee drafted its own collect. Only the 1928 BCP includes an annual substitute for the Venite normally said during Morning Prayer:
O PRAISE the LORD, for it is a good thing to sing praises unto our God; * yea, a joyful and pleasant thing it is to be thankful.
The LORD doth build up Jerusalem, * and gather together the outcasts of Israel.
He healeth those that are broken in heart, * and giveth medicine to heal their sickness.
O sing unto the LORD with thanksgiving; * sing praises upon the harp unto our God:
Who covereth the heaven with clouds, and prepareth rain for the earth; * and maketh the grass to grow upon the mountains, and herb for the use of men;
Who giveth fodder unto the cattle, * and feedeth the young ravens that call upon him.
Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem; * praise thy God, O Sion.
For he hath made fast the bars of thy gates, * and hath blessed thy children within thee.
He maketh peace in thy borders, * and filleth thee with the flour of wheat.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, * and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, * world without end. Amen.
The text is set to four chants (684-687) at the back of The Hymnal (1940); however, most congregations would find it easier to instead use the familiar Venite plainchant, 612.
Of course, many churches will not hold a sung service on Thanksgiving Day; for these, any November singing of thanks would be found on the Sunday beforehand.
Hymns for the Harvest Season
There are eight “Thanksgiving” hymns found in all three of the hymnals being used today in American Anglican churches: Hymnal 1940, Hymnal 1982, or the recent Magnify the Lord. The latter has the most comprehensive list of “Hymns of Thanksgiving,” with 11 hymns (199-209). Of these eight hymns, five are found in the previous 1916 Episcopal hymnal, and three in the 1896 hymnal.
To disentangle these, it is helpful to go back to the common antecedent of today’s hymnals: The English Hymnal (1906), England’s most influential hymnal of the 20th century. With Percy Dearmer as text editor and Ralph Vaughan Williams as music editor, it both consolidated 50 years of Victorian Anglican hymnody and created an enduring compilation that remained in use for 80 years.
TEH has five of these eight hymns, in two separate sections of the hymnal: “Times and Seasons: Harvest” and “Special Occasions: Thanksgiving.” Overall, three of the eight hymns fit the “harvest” theme, all in TEH.
Come, ye thankful people, come. The only harvest hymn in all six hymnals, written in 1844 for the English harvest festival. It begins:
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.
It has only been found with tune St. George’s Windsor since publication in the original 1861 Hymns Ancient & Modern. Like most Victorian tunes, the melody and harmony by George Elvey eminently singable, while the text makes allusions to Mark 4 and Matthew 13.
We plow the fields and scatter. An 1861 free translation of a 1782 German text by Matthias Claudius, paired since 1800 with the tune Claudius. If anything, this is more of a harvest hymn and less of a thanksgiving hymn than the remaining seven hymns:
We plow the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand.
God sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.
For the beauty of the earth. With five verses recounting the beauty of God’s creation, each ends with a refrain of thanksgiving: “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.” While it’s found in all hymnals since 1906, there’s no agreement on the tune, with six tunes across five hymnals. Oddly, Dix is the only tune I ever recall singing with this text although it first paired in the past decade with Magnify the Lord; however, Dix was listed as an alternate tune in Hymnal 1940.
Giving Thanks All Year ’Round
Most of the hymns recommended for Thanksgiving can be used year round; many are listed under “Praise to God.” Two 17th century German Lutheran hymns translated by Catherine Winkworth stand out.
Now thank we all our God. This hymn by Martin Rinkart — based on the Thirty Years’ Was — is the best known of the eight hymns, found in more than 600 hymnals, including al six hymnals here. The Winkworth translation remains the norm, always paired with Johann Crüger’s NUN DANKET. However, the familiar text and Mendelssohn harmonies offer a general hymn of praise more often sung during the remaining 51 weeks of the year.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. This text by Joachim Neander, paired by Neander with the earlier tune Lobe den Herren, is found in The English Hymnal and the three most recent hymnals. While the text talks about the beauty of creation, the emphasis is the imperative form of “praise to the Lord!”
Praise to God, immortal praise is an English Presbyterian text found only in the American hymnals and (fortunately) sung to Dix in all editions. The final phrase emphasizes the praise of the opening verse, beginning with “All to thee, our God, we owe, source whence all our blessings flow” and ending with “Singing thus through all our days praise to God, immortal praise.”
Two hymns appear only in the hymnals since 1940.
We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing. While this traces back to a nationalistic 1597 Dutch hymn “Wilt heden nu treden” and a secular Dutch folk tune, it really is a uniquely American hymn. This translation by American Theodore Baker appeared in an American hymnal in 1903, but became widely known when added to Methodist hymnals in 1928 and 1935. However, evidence suggests that the text (in Dutch) and tune were sung by Dutch Reformed settlers in America as early as the 17th-century. The association with Thanksgiving ties more to the first three words, than to its origins lamenting the 16th-century Spanish persecution of Dutch Protestants.
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. While the doxology by Thomas Ken dates to 1709 and appears in earlier hymnals, the first Anglican pairing appears in Songs of Praise, a 1925 supplemental English hymnal. But among American Anglicans, it is unlikely to be used as a Thanksgiving hymn given the overwhelming association with a post-offertory doxology.
These eight hymns should be familiar to all Anglican congregations and — except for one — with the same tune across all recent hymnals. Some emphasize more the harvest festival of the English (and later American) secular holidays, while others express a timeless gratitude to our Creator that can be sung in November or any other month.
- For a discussion of Magnify the Lord (aka Book of Common Praise 2017), see Joel W. West, “Hymnal Choices for North American Anglicans,” North American Anglican, June 15, 2020, URL: http://northamanglican.online/hymnal-choices-for-north-american-anglicans/ ↑
- Second is The Hymnal (1916) with seven, including five of the eight hymns listed here. ↑
- In 1933, the revised edition of The English Hymnal maintained the texts of the 1906 edition, but replaced or added to more 100 tunes. ↑
- England’s Lane is the tune in Hymnal 1940 and the second tune for Magnify the Lord, and is also found in the two most recent English Anglican hymnals: Songs of Praise (1925) and the New English Hymnal (1986). ↑
- Respectively Chautauqua Hymnal and Liturgy (1903), The Abingdon Hymnal (1928) and The Methodist Hymnal (1935). ↑
- Melanie Kirkpatrick, “The surprising origins of ‘We Gather Together,’ a Thanksgiving standard,” Wall Street Journal, 19 Nov 2005, p. A8. ↑
- Hymnary reports the earliest pairing of Ken’s text with this tune being the 1859 Wesleyan Hymn and Tune Book for the Southern Methodist church. The 1896 and 1916 Episcopal American hymnals have this text with other tunes. ↑