Come, ye thankful people, come! Raise the song of harvest-home! All be 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!
In 1843, while we were having our Disruption up here in Scotland, down in Cornwall the Rev. Robert Hawker decided to hold a special thanksgiving service for the Harvest at his church in Morwenstow. The idea was a popular one, and though it may have been chance it was certainly a happy coincidence that the publication of Psalms and Hymns the following year contained, for the first time, Come, ye Thankful People, Come.
The author, Henry Alford, was thirty-three at the time, and a man completely embedded in the Church of England. From a family of clergy, he was ordained himself in 1833 and rose by 1857 to become Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, a position he held until his death in 1871. He was in his day a renowned scholar and hymn writer, though none of his other hymns ever reached the popularity of this one.
There are several Biblical references within the hymn – the growing seed from Mark 4 appears in the second verse, and the distinction between crops and weeds from Matthew 13 is the theme of the third verse. In the fourth verse, however, Alford makes the link between harvest and judgement stronger with a reference to Revelation 22, which means that this can be a hymn not only for harvest but also for services connected with redemption, mission, and Pentecost – it also gives it a frisson that is not there in other harvest standards like We Plough the Fields.
The tune to which it is nearly always sung today, St. George’s Windsor, was originally composed by George J. Elvey for James Montgomery’s hymn Hark! The song of Jubilee, some years after the publication of Alford’s words. When the new edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern appeared in 1861 the two were linked for the first time. Elvey named his tune after the Royal chapel where he was organist for forty-seven years. The Psalter Hymnal Handbook calls it ‘this serviceable Victorian tune … a foretaste of heaven’s glory’. Altogether, a hymn with layers!