"In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." (I Thessalonians 5:18)
By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.
In the 1630s, Martin Rinkart found himself the only surviving minister in Eilenburg, Saxony, as the Thirty Years’ War convulsed Europe. This bloody conflict had ravaged most of the continent as Germany, France, Sweden, Denmark, and England fought against the unity of the Holy Roman Empire and the House of Hapsburg, which was ruled by Spain.
Millions of people were affected by the fighting. Huge numbers of refugees flocked to the walled city of Eilenberg, hoping the walls would protect them. But the city itself was overrun — by Swedes, then Austrians, then again by the Swedes.
In the unbearably crowded conditions, famine and plague broke out. It is estimated there were as many as 50 funerals a day. In his personal diary, Rev. Rinkart recorded that in 1637 he conducted more than 5,000 funerals — including his wife’s burial.
As unbelievable tragedy faced him daily, Rinkart still served the people. And instead of being swallowed by life’s blows during those dark years, it is believed that he wrote these words.
"Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices; who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
"O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us, with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us still in grace, and guide us when perplexed; and free us from all ills, in this world and the next.
"All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given; the Son, and him who reigns with them in highest heaven; the one eternal God, whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore." (No. 102, UM Hymnal)
When Rinkart wrote, "Guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next," he was not talking about some minor inconvenience. He was demonstrating his faith in what we know, too. Even in the most difficult times we know God is with us — in birth, life, death, and resurrection!
In 1644, as the Thirty Years’ War still raged, composer Johann Cruger introduced Rinkart’s lyrics with his music. And it appears that Cruger published the hymn in a collection in 1647.
In late 1648, news finally arrived that a treaty, the Peace of Westphalia, had been signed, ending the terrible fighting. A decree was issued by the faith communities in all the countries affected by the war. The decree ordered Thanksgiving Services be held in every church.
The decree requested ministers throughout Europe preach on this text: "Now bless ye the Lord of all, who everywhere doeth great things." It is believed that the hymn "Now Thank We All Our God" was widely known by that time and was used in many of those services.
This hymn has a splendor and conveys a resolve that few other works can match. True thanksgiving erupts with every word and on every line!
Today the song continues to help us express thanks in all times. Rinkart’s text has become the second-most widely sung hymn in Germany (exceeded only by "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God").*
A modern-day story of true thanksgiving is found in the life of Henry Smith.
Despite a degenerative eye disease, Smith somehow completed college and even seminary. However, not long after that, he was declared legally blind. Unable to secure a pastorate or any long-term employment, he worked various odd jobs to support himself.
Yet in spite of dire circumstances, Smith has been quoted as saying, "I remember being extremely thankful, and I remember my pastor quoting 2 Corinthians 8:9, that ‘Christ, though he was rich, became poor for our sakes that we might become rich in him.’"
In 1978, Henry Smith wrote a song about his situation. He titled it "Give Thanks."
"Give thanks with a grateful heart, give thanks to the Holy One; give thanks because He’s given Jesus Christ, His Son. And now let the weak say, ‘I am strong!’ Let the poor say, ‘I am rich because of what the Lord has done for us.’ Give thanks."
In recent years, Smith has run a recording studio, and he plays bass on his church’s worship team. Because of his lack of eyesight, he depends on his memory to get the right chords.
Regarding his blindness, he says, "It slows me down, but it doesn’t stop me." *
What are the words to your Thanksgiving song? Does your song reflect true gratitude regardless of the circumstances? Have you learned the secret of true thanksgiving, knowing "what it is to be in need, and how it feels to have plenty; of being thankful in every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4:12)
In many of our churches, both Rinkart’s and Smith’s songs are being sung as we mark Thanksgiving 2012. When you sing them, think of these two faithful men. And, I beg of you, in all things remember to give thanks!
(* Sources include The Complete Book of Hymns, Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, William and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006)