Come, Ye Thankful People, Come


THIS time last year I wrote about Harvest Festival, which I had just missed. This year I am a bit early – it is on October 4. This is because like a lot of Church dates it is linked to the moon, in this case being on or closest to the Sunday of the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon that is closest to the Autumn Equinox.

The celebration of ‘Harvest Home’ goes back to pagan times but until I looked it up last year I did not realise the church festival was a Victorian creation. This is what I wrote: 

‘The inventor was Robert Stephen Hawker (1803-75), vicar of Morwenstow, on the north coast of Cornwall. The phrase “English eccentric” might have been coined for him.

‘He was the son of a Cornish curate and could afford to study at Oxford only by marrying, at the age of 19, a wealthy woman of 41. He won the 1827 Newdigate Prize for poetry.

‘Hawker was ordained in 1831 and was delighted when in 1844 the Bishop of Exeter offered him the post of vicar of Morwenstow, a place and church he had loved since he was a boy. It was pretty desolate – there had not been a vicar for over a century and the coastline was the haunt of smugglers and wreckers, who would lure cargo ships on to the rocks. Lifeboatmen would not go out until the ship was declared available for salvage, by which time the mariners would have drowned. This practice infuriated Hawker and when a ship was wrecked he would go to the shore and urge (in vain, I suspect) the reluctant lifeboat men to rescue the crew. Afterwards he was assiduous about collecting the remains and giving them a Christian burial.

‘On his travels round the parish, Hawker wore a pink fez and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He had a fondness for opium and claimed he had a special relationship with St Morwenna, the fifth century princess after whom his church was named. He built a hut on a clifftop out of wreckage, where he would converse with his saint. Once he made a wig out of seaweed and swam out to a rock where he sat wailing like a mermaid.

‘On September 13, 1843, he put up a notice informing his parishioners that from then on one Sunday would be set apart for harvest thanksgiving, and that the custom of making bread for communion from the first corn would be revived: “Let us gather together in the chancel of our church, and there receive, in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.”

‘Hawker’s first wife, Charlotte, died in 1863 and the following year, aged 60, he married Pauline Kuczynski, the 20-year-old daughter of a Polish count. How on earth she found herself in the wilds of north Cornwall I have no idea. They had three daughters.

‘On his deathbed in 1875 Hawker converted to Roman Catholicism. On the centenary of his death the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, preached at an ecumenical service in his honour, saying he was “a beyond man in a beyond place”.’

The hymn I have chosen for today was written by Henry Alford (1810-1871) who was the sixth generation of his family to be an Anglican clergyman. Alford’s early years were passed with his widowed father, who was curate of Steeple Ashton in Wiltshire. Like so many of the hymn writers we have discussed he was astonishingly gifted. By the age of ten he had written several Latin odes, a history of the Jews and a series of sermon outlines. Later he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1834 was made a fellow of the college. He took Holy Orders and in 1835 became vicar of Wymeswold in Leicestershire.

He wrote Come, Ye Thankful People, Come in 1844 while he was the rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. It was published that year in Hymns and Psalms with seven verses under the title After Harvest. Retitled Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, it was set to George J Elvey’s tune St George’s, Windsor in 1858.

In 1861 several unofficial revisions of the hymn were published, including one in Hymns Ancient and Modern. This sort of cavalier behaviour seems to have happened regularly in those days, and not surprisingly Alford was annoyed. He made his own revision of the hymn in 1865 and published in it his Poetical Works with only four verses and a footnote stating his disapproval of the revisions that had been made without his agreement. He revised it yet again in 1867 in Year of Praise. These are the words sung today:

1 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.

2 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.

3 For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take the harvest home;
from the field shall in that day
all offences purge away,
giving angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store
in the garner evermore.

4 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.

The first verse rejoices over the harvest, the second and third expound on the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13, and the last is a prayer that the final harvest at His Second Coming would happen soon.

Alford was a noted theologian, scholar, poet, hymnodist and writer, and a talented artist. He is best known for his eight-volume edition of the New Testament in Greek, which took 20 years to produce and is still a reference work for students.

This is a performance of Come, Ye Thankful People, Come by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Here is a charming version by Dean Phelps

This is a large-scale arrangement by Mack Wilberg sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

This is sweet!

Here is a joyful arrangement by Sir Dean Goffin for his Symphony of Thanksgiving, played by the Salvation Army’s International Staff Band.

Finally, I thought readers might enjoy this short film of the harvest in 1938. Goodness, those men were tough!

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