Like it or loathe it, harvest festival season is upon us. I have already written in a previous post about the wonderfully eccentric Revd Hawker, who is credited as the inventor of the harvest festival, or perhaps it would be better to say, the person who transformed the secular feast of harvest home into a church-based service of thanksgiving. The problem with harvest festival is that though it may still be a significant event for rural, farming communities, for city congregations remote from the production of food it is less meaningful. Of course, if not producers we all are consumers of food, and modern day harvest festivals often explore themes such as trade justice and ecological awareness. And, to my mind, if harvest festival can get urban congregations thinking about the rural economy for just one day a year, that’s not a bad thing.
At Walworth it’s harvest festival this Sunday and it will be a fairly traditional service. However, being a predominantly African congregation means that harvest takes on a certain significance as a fund-raising event. After the worship there will be an auction of the harvest gifts and I would not be surprised if people bid crazy prices for ordinary fruit and vegetables. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Which brings us to the Hymn of the Week. It’s one of the traditional harvest hymns which we will be singing on Sunday. I’m a bit surprised that it made the cut to Singing the Faith; we only really sing it once a year and there are plenty other, more useful, hymns that did not. It is also one of the hymns that escaped modernisation and has retained its full complements of thee/thy/thous – in fact as far as I can see it is unchanged from Hymns and Psalms.
‘To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise’ was written in 1863, just twenty years after Hawker’s first harvest thanksgiving, which had become widely imitated. The previous year the Church of England had published an order of service for harvest festival. The writer was the prolific William Chatterton Dix (1837-1898), who contributed many hymns to Hymns Ancient & Modern (his other compositions include ‘As with gladness men of old’ and ‘Alleluia! Sing to Jesus’).
Companion to Hymns and Psalms has a helpful exposition of the text:
The hymn begins with the harvest references in Psalm 65:9-13, but by a skilful series of transitions it moves in the second half of verse 2 to John 6:32-58, and thence to a vision of the last judgement as a harvest. In verse 3 there is a reference to Psalm 126:6: ‘he shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him’. This psalm, which is about the return from captivity of the children of Israel, is then linked with another journey to Zion, the vision in verse 4. This is taken from Revelation 4:6-11.
A quick note on the tune – Singing the Faith follows Hymns and Psalms in setting the tune to Arthur Sullivan’s tune BISHOPGARTH, which was written originally to accompany a hymn for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. Curiously, over twenty years previously Sullivan had written a tune especially for this hymn, called GOLDEN SHEAVES. Although both tunes were included in the Methodist Hymn Book, the latter has all but disappeared from modern British Methodist worship.
To thee, O Lord, our hearts we raise
in hymns of adoration,
to thee bring sacrifice of praise
with shouts of exultation.
Bright robes of gold the fields adorn,
the hills with joy are ringing,
the valleys stand so thick with corn
that even they are singing.
And now, on this our festal day,
thy bounteous hand confessing,
Upon thine altar, Lord, we lay
the first fruits of thy blessing.
By thee thy children’s souls are fed
with gifts of grace supernal;
thou who dost give us earthly bread,
give us the bread eternal.
We bear the burden of the day,
and often toil seems dreary;
but labour ends with sunset ray,
and rest comes for the weary.
May we, the angel-reaping o’er,
stand at the last accepted,
Christ’s golden sheaves forevermore
to garners bright elected.
O blessèd is that land of God
where saints abide forever,
where golden fields spread fair and broad,
where flows the crystal river;
the strains of all its holy throng
with ours today are blending;
thrice blessèd is that harvest song
which never has an ending.
William Chatterton Dix