It wouldn’t be a surprise if the above was a familiar verse to Henry Smith, especially in 1978 when he wrote “Give Thanks”. Had he just been hired to his dream-job? How about a healing, so that he overcame a dreaded disease? No, neither of those was true. Indeed, the opposite was Henry’s reality. Nevertheless, he had several reasons to assume an upbeat emotional posture, despite some of the melancholy circumstances that plagued his life. Perhaps when Henry Smith read the Apostle Paul’s admonition, the key word for him was the tiny three-letter adjective, ‘all’. What equation do you use when evaluating the sum of life?
Henry Smith must have seen life this way: God’s side of the equation outweighs whatever is on the opposite side. At least, that’s what the words he wrote indicate. God is the ‘all’ of existence, so that I am called to ‘give thanks’ six times in the song’s opening words. When I’m done here on planet Earth, all that will matter is what lies ahead – in God’s presence. That must have been alluring for Henry Smith, who was struggling to find steady work, despite having just earned his college degree. When he says ‘the poor’ are rich in “Give Thanks”, that’s an echo from his difficulty in finding work. His eyesight was also failing because of a degenerative condition that would eventually leave him legally blind, certainly a ‘weakness’ that he expressed in the song as his eyesight faded. Thankfully, theological training informed him that God’s side of the equals sign was what mattered. And other parts of his life further motivated the song that leapt from his heart. He’d found someone to love, his future wife. And, he was grateful to be through school, which his deteriorating vision had made difficult, and to be back home in a church he loved in Williamsburg, Virginia. If God was all Henry Smith had in 1978, He could be praised, and yet He provided even more. It’s no surprise that Smith’s heart overflowed in a song. And, the song resounds still in Henry Smith’s hometown and around the globe today.
On the opposite side of the globe, it’s said that “Give Thanks”, when hummed by strangers from the West, is recognized by Chinese Christians who are otherwise reluctant to reveal their faith. And, Henry Smith is able to play a bass guitar or the keyboard to offer songs at a church in the U.S. today, despite being blind. These two facts say physical circumstances may challenge me, but I’m the image-offspring of an unbounded God. Fasten your mind and spirit to this seminal fact, and give thanks.
The source for Henry Smith’s “Give Thanks” song story is the book “Our God Reigns: The Stories behind Your Favorite Praise and Worship Songs”, by Phil Christensen and Shari MacDonald, Kregel Publications, 2000. Also see “The Complete Book of Hymns-Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. ,2006.