What if I told you that “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” and “We Gather Together” were originally not meant to be Thanksgiving hymns as we know it today? Yes, both were not written for the purpose of giving thanks and praise to God for a good harvest.
“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”
It is true that “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” written in 1844 by Henry Alford, an Anglican minister, has overtones of joy at harvest time. In Stanza 1, the people are exhorted to sing in thankfulness for the harvest “safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin” since “doth provide for our wants to be supplied.” However, the reference to a joyful harvest time ends here. In the next three stanzas, the theme unexpectedly shifts to Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43).
In this parable, “all the world is God’s own field.” The sower is Christ, and the good seeds, “fruit unto his praise to yield,” are people in his kingdom (verses 37-38). During the night, devil sowed weeds in the field, “wheat and tares together sown” (verses 27, 39). Why are the wheat and the tares “unto joy or sorrow grown”? Stanza 3 will answer this question. The writer then prays, “Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be,” alluding to Revelation 19:8, when at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the new heaven and new earth, the Bride of Christ, the church will be presented to him pure and blameless (Eph 5:27; Phil 1:10).
Stanza 3 then expands on the “joy or sorrow” in the previous stanza. In Matthew 13:19-43, Jesus prophesies that on the day of his Great Harvest, there will be joy for the wheat. All believers will rejoice and exult in heaven (Rev 19:7) because at Christ’s coming, “all offenses [will be purged] away.” When he appears from heaven, Christ will “[store] the fruitful ears in his garner evermore.” All believers will be gathered by God’s angels at Christ’s coming, and taken to God’s “garner” (granary) to be with him forever (1 Thess 4:17).
What about the weeds? The harvest is their doomsday, because for them, Christ is a wrathful reaper. At the sight of him coming down from heaven, they will mourn (Matt 24:30; Rev 1:7). On that day, Christ will “give his angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast.” The hymnist uses verses 41-42 where the angels will “gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace.” Satan, his angels, and all unbelievers who follow him will be thrown into the lake of fire. In that horrible place, they will gnash their teeth and weep as they are tormented day and night forever (Rev 20:7-10).
The final stanza is a prayer, “Even so, Lord, quickly come to thy final harvest home,” just as the Apostle John prays, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). God’s “final harvest home” where he gathers all his people is the new heaven and new earth. In that heavenly dwelling place, they will be “free from sorrow, free from sin, there forever purified” (Rev 21:4). The hymnist prays that he will “abide in [God’s] presence” because “He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” forever and ever (Rev 21:3).
Therefore, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come is not merely a thanksgiving hymn to God for a bountiful harvest. Rather, it is more a prayer and longing for Christ’s return on Judgment Day to gather his chosen people into the new heaven and new earth in joy forever, and also to gather all unrepentant sinners into a terrifying place in torment and sorrow forever.
“We Gather Together”
“We Gather Together” is even less of a Thanksgiving hymn. It was adapted from a 16th century or earlier Netherlands folk song. Some historians trace the hymn back to the Dutch war of independence from Spanish oppression. After their victory in the Battle of Turnhout in 1597, the Dutch Protestants celebrated by singing this folk song with new words of thanksgiving and praise to God. The first line, in English, was, “We gather together,” in protest against the Spanish prohibition against the Protestants gathering together for worship. The hymn was first published by Adrianus Valerius (c. 1575-1625), a Dutch poet in 1626. The tune is called Kremser, composed by Austrian musician Edward Kremser (1838-1914) in 1877.
How then did it become a beloved American Thanksgiving hymn? Possibly as early as the 1620s, Dutch settlers brought the hymn with to the New World, continuing to sing it in their worship services through the centuries. In 1894, the hymn was finally translated into English by an American musician Theodore Baker (1851-1934). It was then included in the hymnal of the Methodist-Episcopal Church in 1935, becoming a traditional American Thanksgiving hymn.
With this historical context of the Dutch struggle for independence against Spanish oppression, let us look at the hymn.
In the first stanza, the people sings, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” because the Scriptures command God’s people to gather regularly for worship on the Lord’s Day (Heb 10:24-25). In worship, they hear the will of God in Scriptures preached, “chastening” them when they stray from his commandments (Heb 12:5-7). “The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing” refers to Spanish oppression of the Dutch. In 1526, the Spanish army massacred thousands and burned hundreds of home in Antwerp. The 80 Years War (1568-1648) is the Dutch wars of independence led by William the Silent, Prince of Orange. They were able to get a truce in 1609, but the war resumed in 1625. Spain finally recognized Holland’s independence in 1648. But the Dutch praised God because “he forgets not his own” (Psa 9:12).
Then in the second stanza, the Dutch Protestants praises God, “Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining.” God assures us that he is always on our side, always with us (Psa 118:6; Heb 13:6; Matt 28:20). This means that God preserves his holy kingdom from her enemies (Matt 16:18; John 17:15), “ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine.” Because the Dutch were able to get a truce in 1609, they sang, “so from the beginning the fight we were winning.” They believed that the battle belongs to the Lord (1 Sam 17:47). They are certain that Christ will destroy all his enemies in the end, and he is King of Kings forever (Rev 19:11-16), so they sing to him, “all glory be thine!”
The third stanza summarizes their faith in God in their struggle for independence. They praise and extol the Lord for defeating their enemies (Psa 30:1), their “leader triumphant” (2 Cor 2:14; Col 2:15), their “defender” (Psa 18:2; Zech 9:15). Their prayer is that they will “endure through tribulation” because Christ promised so (Rev 7:14; 1 Thess 5:9; Rom 12:12). Lastly, the Dutch Protestants pray, “O Lord, make us free!” from Spanish oppression (Isa 54:14). As Christians, this is also our prayer, “O Lord, make us free from sin and Satan’s tyranny!” (Rom 6:7).
Therefore, although they are not originally written to give thanks to God for his bountiful provisions, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” and “We Gather Together” are our most beloved Thanksgiving hymns. The words are beautiful and based on Scriptures, the tunes evoke joy and thankfulness to God.