I like Thanksgiving, and I like hymns. There are a couple of hymns that those of us who still sing hymns usually hear, and maybe sing, nearly every year during the Thanksgiving season. Have you ever wondered how they came to be connected to the holiday? Did the Pilgrims sing them? Or were they written with our Thanksgiving holiday in mind?
“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” is a hymn of thanksgiving for the harvest. It then goes on to liken the harvest to God’s last judgement of mankind, in which the angels will separate the wheat from the tares. It’s a favorite of mine and a very appropriate hymn for a holiday on which we give thanks for, among other things, God’s material provision in our lives.
But the Pilgrims didn’t sing it. None of that first generation in the Plymouth Colony even heard it, either before or after they crossed the sea. Anglican minister Henry Alford wrote and published it in England in his 1844 book Psalms and Hymns. During the course of his life, Alford wrote a number of other hymns, none which are likely to be known to modern American evangelical Christians.
Another hymn that has often been associated with the Thanksgiving holiday is “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.” This may seem a more unusual hymn for this day, since it doesn’t speak of the harvest at all. For example, here’s the first verse:
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.
We certainly ought to be thankful that God does not forget His own, but it’s not usually the first thing that springs to mind (although perhaps it should be) when we sit down on this day to reflect on God’s bounty to us over the past twelvemonth.
This is a good time to take note that our American Thanksgiving holiday was not necessarily meant to be chiefly a harvest-thanks festival. When I lived in Germany, some of my German friends thought it strange that Thanksgiving came so long after the harvest was home rather than in early October, like the German Erntedankfest (purely a church holiday, and not a civil one, so far as I know). The answer is that the first Thanksgiving was the Pilgrims celebration of the first anniversary of their arrival in America. Despite severe initial hardships the colony had survived. The Spanish hadn’t got them. The French hadn’t got them. The Indians hadn’t got them. In fact, now they were friends with the Indians. And they hadn’t all starved or died of disease. Praise God!
Similarly, some of the Thanksgiving days in the first century of the United States were expressions of national gratitude for God’s blessings on the nation. George Washington’s 1789 thanksgiving proclamation called on Americans to thank God for enabling them to establish a free government by establishing the Constitution that had just gone into effect. Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 thanksgiving proclamation recognized God’s blessing on the Union cause during recent months, as the nation fought for the survival of free self-government and the eradication of slavery in America.
These thoughts are more in keeping with the actual message of the hymn “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing.” Andrianus Valerius wrote it in 1597 as “Wilt Heden nu Treden” and set it to a Netherlands folks tune. It was a hymn celebrating the recent victory of the Protestant Dutch forces, under Prince Maurice of Orange, over their Catholic Spanish oppressors at the battle of Turnhout, a strategic crossroads town near the border between the Protestant northern Netherlands and the Catholic southern Netherlands (now Belgium). Keeping this historical background in mind brings the hymn’s meaning to life. For one thing, under Spanish rule, the Dutch had been expressly forbidden to “gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing” after the Protestant manner. The context also helps make sense of the last two verses:
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, were at our side, all glory be Thine!
We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
Since the Pilgrims who later settled Plymouth Colony had taken refuge with their Protestant brethren in Leyden, Holland, from 1609 to 1619, it’s tempting to think that maybe they learned this hymn of praise for God’s deliverance from danger and then in 1621 sang it as they gave thanks to God for His preservation through their first year in the New World.
But they didn’t. For one thing, the hymn was not published (in a hymnbook called Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck) until 1626, and that, of course, was in Dutch. Only much later did it begin its own pilgrimage from Dutch to Latin to German and finally, in 1894, to English. The Pilgrims would have been little inclined to sing in Dutch. While living in Holland they had worshipped together in English as a community of English exiles, and one of the concerns that had prompted them to migrate to America was the fear that their children were adopting too much of Dutch language and culture.
But there was another reason why the Pilgrims would not have sung “We Gather Together” at the first Thanksgiving or any subsequent one: The Pilgrims were psalm-singers. That is, they believed only the Psalms recorded in the Bible were suitable for praising God in song.
So what might the Pilgrims have sung on that first Thanksgiving? We definitely have a prime suspect. The tune was written by Louis Bourgeois and published in Four Score and Seven Psalms of David in Geneva, Switzerland, hotbed of exiled English and Scottish Protestantism, in 1551. The words were Psalm 100, arranged in metric form by William Kethe for a subsequent edition of the same work ten years later.
It remained a favorite hymn of praise among Americans for many generations, known commonly as “Old Hundredth.” Today in many churches the tune, with somewhat altered meter, is used for the Doxology, but some also still sing the same words, tune, and meter the Pilgrims likely sang on the first Thanksgiving day, and on many other occasions. So too did their more numerous neighbors and religious near-cousins the Puritans when they arrived and settled just up the coast, as together over the following decades Pilgrims and Puritans strove to establish a society pleasing to God and governed by His laws.