I’m almost done writing the first draft of my next book. My first two books in this series about the stories behind hymns were focused on hymns on a particular theme. My first book was a small book about the stories of 31 hymns that were based on the Psalms. My second book had 51 stories about hymns based on the theme of peace and comfort.
My current book is about seasonal hymns – the stories behind hymns written to celebrate the seasons of the church year from Advent and Christmas, through Easter and Pentecost, and ending with Christ the King Sunday. I’m also including hymns written to celebrate national holidays, like Thanksgiving. Of the 120 hymn stories in this book, I just finished drafting the story of the 114th hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.”
The pandemic has provided me an atmosphere that’s very conducive to writing. If I’m supposed to stay at home and avoid seeing people I don’t live with, sitting at my computer to research the history of hymns is the perfect thing to do. I started writing this book in March. I’ll admit, it was a little hard to focus on Advent hymns during Lent, and Lenten hymns during the beautiful sunny days of summer. I’m finally caught up, and am now in sync. I’m writing about Thanksgiving hymns just in time for Thanksgiving.
Which leads me into why I’m writing this blog post today. Not only is “Now Thank We All Our God” a hymn of thankfulness that is appropriate for this time of year, the hymn was written in 1636, during the peak of the plague that spread throughout Europe – a time we can somewhat identify with this year, the year of our own pandemic. Because the parallels between 1636 and 2020 are so notable, I decided to share the story on my blog.
“NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD”
I’m writing this on Sunday, November 15, 2020, less than two weeks before Thanksgiving. This is the year of the Corona Virus, COVID-19. Public Health officials are urging us to stay home for Thanksgiving – to NOT gather with friends and family. The risk of spreading the virus is too great. It’s easy to feel disappointed or depressed by the havoc the virus has wreaked on our country and the whole world this year. This Thanksgiving is not a time that many of us are inclined to feel very thankful.
Almost 400 years ago, the world was in a similar predicament. The Thirty Years War was raging and the plague was spreading throughout Europe. In 1636 Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in the walled city of Eilenburg, Germany, wrote the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Throughout the Thirty Years War, Eilenburg, as a walled city, was flooded with refugees seeking safety. That resulted in overcrowding, widespread hunger, and disease. Also, the city was sacked three times during the war, once by the Austrian Army and twice by the Swedish Army.
By the mid 1630s, Rinkart was the only pastor still alive in the city, and he was left with the task of officiating at the funerals of everyone who died – sometimes as many as 50 funerals in a day. One was for his wife.
Despite this horrible situation, Rinkart regularly invited refugees into his home for meals, even though he barely had enough food for his own family. He wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” as a prayer to be sung before a meal. The first verse expresses gratitude to God for his “countless gifts of love.” The second verse is a petition for God’s continued care. The last verse praises God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – “the one eternal God.”
During his ministry, Rinkart wrote 65 other hymns, but this is the one that is still in wide use. Even today it is one of the most frequently sung hymns in German churches.
In the 1850s, Catherine Winkworth, an English hymn writer and educator traveled in Germany and became very interested in German hymns. She selected about 400 German hymns, translated them into English, and published four hymn books of German hymns in English. She is the person who brought “Now Thank We All Our God” to the English-speaking world.
This year may be the perfect year to sing or read “Now Thank We All Our God” before we eat our Thanksgiving dinner, just as the author intended it to be sung – as a prayer before a meal.
Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who, from our mothers’ arms, has blest us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
Oh, may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us,
and keep us all in grace, and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all harm in this world and the next.
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given,
the Son, and Spirit blest, who reign in highest heaven,
and one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore;
for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.