Have you ever noticed that, except for the first line, the familiar Thanksgiving hymn, “We Gather Together” is not about God’s blessing?
We sing such statements as:
- The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing
- So from the beginning the fight we were winning
- Let Thy congregation escape tribulation
Don’t those seem strange concepts to emphasize on a day set aside for thanks?
The truth is: although Thanksgiving is about gratitude, it is also a celebration of religious freedom. That was surely on the minds of the Pilgrims back in 1621.
Freedom to worship God, and to read the Bible for themselves, were among the chief reasons the small band of believers left England for Holland in 1609. Then, as circumstances became difficult there as well, they courageously set out for America to establish their own colony (albeit with a charter from the king of England, which granted them permission to inhabit the Virginia Colony).
The Pilgrims had faced the threat of imprisonment and death in Holland as well as England. In addition, the trip to America included such hazards as shipwreck, illness, and accident.
Yet troubles only mounted upon reaching the New World. The Mayflower landed too far north–at Cape Cod—not in Virginia as planned. A late launch and a sixty-six day voyage on stormy seas (instead of the planned three weeks) meant they arrived in late fall. Shelters were not completed until February. Then there were Indians to worry about.
Yet they were willing to face all these challenges in order to establish a colony “for the Glory of God and Advancement of the Christian Faith” (from the Mayflower Compact).
The third line of the hymn speaks of one joy they embraced: “The wicked oppressing” (King James of England and his bishops) “now cease from distressing.” God had removed the Pilgrims far out of the king’s reach. No longer could he persecute them.
The first verse ends with: “Sing praises to His name.” There is no historical record that the Pilgrims sang at their first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621. But music was typical at their gatherings, so perhaps they did participate in a psalm or two. After all, the feasting lasted three days!
Undoubtedly the Pilgrims would have offered their prayerful thanks– even though half their number had died the previous winter, and the first harvest had been quite meager. (The ninety Native Americans who attended that celebration actually brought most of the food.)
The second verse of the hymn begins: “Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining.”
God certainly chose an interesting way to guide the Pilgrims and join with them in surviving the harsh conditions of New England. Remember Squanto? He’s the one who showed the Pilgrims how to fertilize the soil with fish. Without that first crop of decent corn, the Pilgrims never would have survived.
Even more amazing? Squanto just happened to speak English!
The third verse of “We Gather Together” begins: “We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant.” The Pilgrims honored God as Lord. They recognized that from him all blessings flow. And the hymn concludes: “Thy name be ever praised; O Lord, make us free.”
In actuality, this hymn was not written as a direct tribute to the Pilgrims’ experience. It dates back to Holland, in the late 1500s, written in celebration of a Dutch victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Turnhout (1597).
Under the rule of Spain’s King Philip II, Dutch Protestants had been forbidden to gather for worship. Perhaps the Pilgrims heard the song while living in Holland. But the words we sing today were translated into English by Theodore Baker, in 1894.
Even so, the words remind us that the Pilgrims suffered much and risked everything to found a colony where they could gather together in freedom—to proclaim:
“All glory be Thine!”
May we, too, extol our Leader triumphant, as we sing this hymn through the coming week.
(Sources: The Founders’ Bible, www.plimoth.org, History News Network at http://www.hnn.org )