Every time I hear the hymn, it elicits memories of my childhood – an organ booming its stately and steady tempo, the congregation dressed in their Sunday best, me dreaming of turkey and pie and football.
For many Christian churches, the hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” is as much a part of Thanksgiving as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, turkey and pumpkin pie. For others it is an old, outdated hymn which is rarely sung.
To truly appreciate the beauty of “Now Thank We All Our God,” however, you need know its story. So, for a moment, let’s leave behind the creature comforts of twenty-first century America and travel back to the dark, dreary days of seventeenth century Germany.
Germany in the seventeenth century was ravaged by war and disease. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the deadliest religious war in the history of the world, left eight million people dead. German cities, towns and villages were leveled. Farms were destroyed. Those who survived lived in abject poverty.
Martin Rinkart was a pastor who served in the walled town of Eilenburg, Germany, during the dark days of the Thirty Years War. The town’s population swelled during the conflict as people from the surrounding areas sought refuge behind its walls.
Famine and disease decimated Eilenburg. In 1637, the plague swept through the town like the angel of death. Four pastors began the year in Eilenburg. By the end of the year, however, one had abandoned his post and Pastor Rinkart had presided over the funerals of the other two.
During that year, Rinkart conducted the funerals for up to 50 people a day, including the funeral of his beloved wife. In that one year, nearly 4,500 residents of the town died of disease.
Yet, despite being surrounded by the stench of death and staring every day at mere scraps of food on his plate, Rinkart was able to write the words:
Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother’s arms, hath led us on our way,
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
Are you struggling to find a reason to give thanks this year? Maybe you are frustrated with the political polarization of our country. Maybe your marriage is a mess. Maybe your cancer has returned with a vengeance.
No matter what struggles or problems we face, we can still sing with joy, “Now thank we all our God.” Even in the middle of the problems and pains of this world, our God has showered us with countless gifts of love. If you have a hard time seeing that, just make a list of all the good things in your life of which Martin Rinkart could have only dreamed.
We can also sing, “Now thank we all our God,” because we know that even the pains and hardships are a part of God’s plan of love for us. We can sing, “Now thank we all our God,” because among his countless gifts of love, our God gives us is the gift of forgiveness.
What a wondrous thing he has done! He died for us so that we could live with him in the happiness of heaven where we will one day be free from all the ills of this world.
So this Thanksgiving, join your voice with Martin Rinkart and the billions of Christians who for nearly four centuries have been able to sing, in good times and in bad, “Now thank we all our God.”