Saturday, October 8, 2016

Come, Ye Thankful People Come -- Henry Alford

The English celebrate God’s bounty during an annual agricultural harvest, a event that Americans who are focused on a Thursday in November may not readily know. This has been going on for centuries, typically near when the full moon (harvest moon) of September rises in the night sky (like the one shown here). So, when 34-year-old Englishman Henry Dean Alford wrote seven verses of poetry (four of which still survive) that gave voice to his countrymen’s gratitude, he was agreeing that this was still a healthy exercise. But, Alford apparently said “Come Ye Thankful People Come” not just before the meal in 1844, but at other times too.  And, it made Henry think that this exercise should be about more than food the Divine Maker has chosen to give us. What he wrote shows that he thought more about another harvest, in addition to the one that makes its calendar circuit each late September in his country. His poetry incisively causes the reader to consider more than the food entering the physical body.

Henry Alford’s impression about the annual autumn harvest was just one of the ingrained lessons he gathered from his ancestors in England. His father and indeed several generations before him were reportedly clergymen in the Anglican Church, a path which Henry also followed by the early 1830s.  He was most likely in the London area in ministry when he authored the hymn that he initially entitled “After Harvest”, and which was later known as “Come…”. By this time, Henry had a reputation for thankfulness, which he often reportedly expressed after eating his meals, as well as during various other times of the day. It’s also said that Alford associated one of the Psalms (126:6) with his “Come…” stanzas. So, Henry was indeed telling his listeners to acknowledge God’s goodness for the food they’d gathered. That’s verse one, but his message didn’t stop there. He evidently thought he and everyone else were harvest too. God’s field was the people He’d watered and for whom He cared, and who Henry thought He intended to be like fruitful, abundant grain (vv.2-3). But, interestingly, just because the Lord is the farmer doesn’t mean the field is weed-free. Tares are present, so it’s apparent that Henry was reading about what Jesus said about them and the grain growing together (Matthew 13). It must have been part of Henry’s experience that good and some bad inhabited the same space, the way weeds occupy a field of corn or wheat. But there’s a time when the grain nevertheless ripens, and can be sorted away from the field’s litter. Henry no doubt saw or heard farmers regularly describe this phenomenon. He must have yearned to see what this would look like on another plane, Providentially (v.4).  

Thanksgiving in America has its roots in Old World England. No surprise there, but on that fourth Thursday in November each year, how much does one hear about the English Harvest that has taken place for far more years consecutively? I didn’t hear of the 2016 version of English Harvest a few weeks ago, yet it did take place, according to my Google search and internet news (see link below). Henry Alford’s descendents probably likewise celebrated this event. And, somewhere, Henry’s words were probably sung once again. And, can we be equally as certain that another harvest awaits, gathered from many fields? Are you certain you’re among that cornucopia?    

The following website has all four still-existing verses:
See thoughts about the song in these sources also: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 More Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.  
See here for information on Britain’s Harvest Festival:
Read here about one English Harvest celebration in 2016:

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