Thursday, November 24, 2016

Favorite German Pilgrim hymn

“Now thank we all our God” is the opening hymn recommended for Thanksgiving Day by Hymnal 1940. The hymn dates from the mid-17th century Germany, or a few decades after the first† American Thanksgiving celebration by the Plymouth colonists in 1621.

The lyrics should be familiar to almost any American Protestant:
Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
It has been sung by Anglicans for almost 160 years and by American Anglicans for 140. The Hymnal 1940 Companion writes
This famous hymn of Martin Rinckart was written sometimes during the experiences of the Thirty Years’ War, when his village was sacked on three separate occasions. It is based on the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus 50:22-24. … The hymn was probably published in his lost Jesu, Hertz-Buchlein, 1636, since it is found in the extant edition of 1663. It next appeared, with the present tune, in the 1647 edition of Crüger’s Praxis Pietatis Medica (1656 ed.)

The translation was made by Catherine Winkworth for her Lyra Germanica, (second series, 1858), and reprinted in her Chorale Book for England, 1863. It has been in the Hymnal since 1874.
Although some list it as being written in 1636, Hymnal 1940 assumes it was written sometime earlier and saved for the 1636 compilation.

Beyond its origins during Europe’s terrible religious civil war, the hymn was paired almost from the beginning with a tune — named Nun Danket after the first two words of the German text — by the great German composer Johann Crüger that was published in what is described as  “the most successful and widely-known Lutheran hymnal of the 17th century”. We today use a translation by the greatest English translator of German hymns, Catherine Winkworth. The harmonization is by Felix Mendelssohn, from his 1840 “Lobgesang” (posthumously published as Symphony No. 2).

Even beyond what we sing, the story of Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) is a compelling one. LCMS Pastor Will Weedon had a very interesting podcast on Issues Etc. last year on Rinkart, his travails, and his indomitable spirit. He spent the bulk of his career in Eilenburg, where he buried the two other town clergy and his wife during the town’s great plague of 1637. As early as the 18th century, it became a song of national thanksgiving for the German people on major occasions (probably today supplanted by the EU anthem).

The hymn has been in all Episcopalian hymnals since 1874 (1874, 1892, 1916, 1940, 1982) – as well as Baptist, Methodist, Catholic and of course the American Lutheran ones. So it seems an appropriate hymn for all Americans to sing today.

† Yes other states claim the first Thanksgiving, but clearly American culture credits the Massachusetts-dwelling Pilgrims with having the one that we today emulate.

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