Come, Ye Thankful People, Come

Henry Alford, 1844
Addressed to one another and then to God
Come, ye thankful people, come,Ex. 23:16; Lev. 23:10
raise the song of harvest home:Ps. 126:5–6; Is. 9:3
all is safely gathered in,Lev. 26:5
ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provideDeut. 8:3; Jer. 5:24; 2 Cor. 9:10
for our wants to be supplied:Ps. 34:10; Matt. 6:25–33
come to God’s own temple, come,Ex. 34:22–23
raise the song of harvest home.
All the world is God’s own field,Matt. 13:38; John 4:35
fruit unto his praise to yield;Phil. 1:11; Rom. 9:22–23
wheat and tares together sown,Matt. 13:24–25
unto joy or sorrow grown:
first the blade, and then the ear,Mark 4:28
then the full corn shall appear:
Lord of harvest, grant that weMatt. 9:38
wholesome grain and pure may be.Deut. 22:9
For the Lord our God shall come,Rev. 14:15–19
and shall take his harvest home;
from his field shall in that dayMatt. 13:39
all offenses purge away;
give his angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast,Mal. 4:1; Matt. 13:30, 41–43
but the fruitful ears to store
in his garner evermore.Matt. 3:12
Even so, Lord, quickly comeMatt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 16:22b; Rev. 22:20
to thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in,
free from sorrow, free from sin;Is. 35:10; 60:21; Rev. 21:4, 27
there forever purified,
in thy presence to abide:
come, with all thine angels, come,Matt. 25:31
raise the glorious harvest home.

In the “Harvest Supper” chapter of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, we find the country carpenter Adam walking home one autumn evening in 1801, when “he saw in the distance the last load of barley winding its way towards the yard-gate of the Hall Farm” and heard the laborers singing a folk song of the type generically known as a harvest home, “rising and sinking like a wave.” He marvels at its strange synthesis of high spirits and gravity.

It was enough to make Adam feel that he was in a great temple, and that the distant chant was a sacred song. “It’s wonderful,” he thought, “how that sound goes to one’s heart almost like a funeral-bell, for all it tells one o’ the joyfullest time o’ the year, and the time when men are mostly the thankfullest. I suppose it’s a bit hard to us to think anything’s over and gone in our lives; and there’s a parting at the root of all our joys.

He is on the cusp of understanding the mystery, and—student of the Bible that he is—it’s a bit surprising he does not find his way clear to the full answer.

The Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and his apostles all teach us overtly what everybody already knows deep inside: that harvesttime is a picture of the end of time. And just as the one brings thanksgiving, rejoicing, and legitimate merry-making so, too, the other promises a celestial feast for which our turkey and dressing is but a type. It is only right and healthy that we rejoice over the promise of a grand harvest, when the Son of Man will come in his glory, and all his angels with him, to administer justice and to reveal the absolute holiness of God. But it’s a sobering promise, too. The gathering of crops is a day of reckoning. Not all are prepared for the reality of what’s coming (Jer. 8:20), and those who are were made so at great cost. Songs about tares being cast in the fire must not trip glibly off the tongues of saints who, but hours ago by the measure of eternity, bore all the marks of tares. “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” is the preeminent English-language hymn of harvest because it acknowledges the full meaning of the season, with both its high spirits and gravity.

In the first stanza we bid one another join in the old folk song, so to speak, thanking and praising God for the earthly harvest. We may not, however, stare with self-confidence at our full storehouses. God, says the third couplet, is the one who provided for our needs. The second and third stanzas then turn to the thing signified in the metaphor, laid completely bare by the second stanza’s first couplet. The next two couplets are a paraphrase from Matthew 13 and Mark 4, but in the final one we turn to God and ask that we, as wheat, would ripen into wholesome and pure grain. This is the first point at which God is addressed and foreshadows the last stanza which is given over entirely to prayer. Why we wish to be wheat is better shown in the next stanza. We learn in vivid language of the danger and bliss of the judgment. The former, it seems, prompts the “even so,” of the last stanza’s first line. Even though his judgment will be fierce for our fellow man, we beg its coming. This small gesture helps save the hymn from the danger of glibness.

The text need not do all the work to avoid smugness, for the tune has strategically placed serious gestures that discourage any hint of vindictive glee. A rhythmic motif (LONG–short–long–long–long–long–LONG) fills the entire tune, and this continuity allows such a harmonically rich tune to yet be singable. Once we’ve mastered the pattern we can sing it wherever it occurs, whatever may be beneath it. This is important, for harmony makes the tune’s interest as much as the contour of the melody itself. We feel this to be the case from the beginning, for the tune’s first two measures are harmonized first according to expectations and then repeated but given a completely different cadence. The second four measures take us away from the home key, and that departure is heightened by the third set of four measures, which moves us, though initially back home, finally to yet a third key. The last set of four measures begins with even further departure but turns back beautifully to cadence in the home key. Because the tune is divided into four-measure clauses of two-measure phrases, the text, which is grouped in couplets by rhyme and idea, fits it neatly, with two measure of tune per line. More importantly, the awesome ideas contained in these couplets are appropriately colored by those in the tune. Consider the first couplet of the hymn-text, which ends on the word “home.” Then consider how far from home you feel when you sing the tune’s first four measures as traditionally harmonized. The same word terminates the first couplet in all stanzas but one. This is no flaw. It counteracts the naive sentimentality sometimes attached to homecoming. Were we to end the first couplet of the third stanza in a musically satisfying way, the hymn might degenerate into self-applause and finger-wagging. That the tune stalls on a sonority quite unexpected and piquant causes us to pause on the text instead of projecting onto it sentiments that take grace for granted. That most dangerous of couplets, the third of the same stanza, occurs in a melodic passage that builds instead of one that confirms, so that we leave the couplet to find satisfaction first delayed melodically as we sing “but the fruitful ears to store,” and then ultimately arriving when we consider not “the tares” nor “the fruitful ears” but “his garner.”