“A great song should lift your heart, warm the soul and make you feel good.” Colbie Caillat
Henry Alford is a name most of us won’t recognize. As a matter of fact, today’s hymn, Come, Ye Thankful People Come, composed by Alford back in 1844, didn’t trigger a memory for me until my wife, Sandy, sang a few lines from the first stanza! And, unless you are a true connoisseur of the hymns, you probably won’t recall the tune that is traditionally paired up with Alford’s words as well. St. George’s Windsor, written by George J. Elvey, the organist at St. George’s Windsor chapel in England for forty-seven years (1835-1882), was wedded with Alford’s hymn in a collection of hymns published in the mid-1800’s.
Originally written for the fall harvest festivals of rural 19th century England, Alford’s hymn contained seven stanzas and was entitled After Harvest. But by the time Elvey’s tune was combined with his words (1861), Alford had revised his hymn on several occasions, leaving us with the lyrics and title we find in most traditional hymnals today:
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.
All the world is God’s own field,
Fruit as praise to God we yield;
Wheat and tares together sown,
Are to joy or sorrow grown;
First the blade and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we,
Wholesome grain and pure may be.
For the Lord, our God, shall come,
And shall take the harvest home;
From the field shall in that day,
All offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last,
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store,
In the garner evermore.
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…what makes an old harvest hymn like Henry Alford’s endure?
Music historians tell us that even back in the day, Alford, a longtime dean at Canterbury Cathedral, was much better known as a scholar than as a hymn-writer. His four-volume work on the Greek New Testament was used by many scholars, and in the latter part of his life, Alford held a high honorary position on a scholarly committee appointed to revise the New Testament. Certainly Alford’s words, using 18th century English, make it difficult, at best, for most modern worshippers to sing. Yet, like it or not, there’s something here that makes this old hymn keep appearing in contemporary hymnals.
I’m wondering if it’s the theme of thanksgiving that makes this hymn so memorable? Or possibly, it’s the fascination we all have about the second coming of Christ, which theme Alford generously uses near the end of his hymn? Or maybe it’s Elvey’s tune; with it’s stately processional feel? If you take the time to go online and hear a recording of this hymn, one sort of walks away feeling that sense of Victorian air about them when blending Alford’s elegant words with that rich, full organ sound. Regardless of the reason, I’m touched deeply by the significance of this old classic. As I see it, in this current age of pop-rock, where sadly a lot of our worship lyrics go no deeper than a shallow pond, I’m kinda digging this high church feel I find in today’s hymn written way back in 1844. How about you?
My prayer: Precious Father, it’s good for me to step out of my contemporary settings from time to time and look carefully at the songs past generations have held dear. In Henry Alford’s text, I find a theme I often overlook, and with George Elvey’s melody, I feel a certain stirring inside me. Thank You for these treasures from years past. For Your name’s sake. Amen.
My questions to ponder: So how can these old words and unfamiliar tunes be used by God’s Spirit to awaken a new creative sense within me today? Are there messages here that I must be more attentive to?
So what is God speaking to you today as we ponder together 30 Great Hymns of Faith?
Between now and Easter 2016, we will be sharing with you this blog series we call Thirty Great Hymns of Faith. In order to keep all 34 blog sessions organized, we suggest you bookmark our Thirty Great Hymns of Faith home page for ease of use. ENJOY!
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