Now thank we all our God
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms,
Hath 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 in his 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 heav’n adore;
For thus it was, is now,
And shall be evermore.
This hymn was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth, who claimed that her calling was to translate German hymns for English Christians. The first step toward gaining an understanding of the poem is to reconstruct the historical context in which it was written. As were many great hymns, this one was forged in the crucible of terrible suffering.
The author was a Lutheran pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony, during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). Martin Rinkart arrived to begin his pastorate in the city the year before the war broke out and died the year after it ended. The walled city of Eilenburg not only was overrun three times by hostile armies but was also subject to famine and epidemic illness. During his pastorate in the besieged city, Rinkart presided over more than four thousand burials—including that of his wife.
Knowing this context is important to our experience of this poem in two ways. First, it dispels any suspicion that the extreme sentiments expressed in the poem are facile or glib. Second, it shows us that we can be grateful to God even amid terrible deprivation and misery.
If we ask what makes this hymn the “signature” Thanksgiving hymn, an obvious answer is its magical opening line, which strikes the authentic thanksgiving note. At the beginning of a Thanksgiving service, members of the congregation are of one mind and expectation. They are “all” there to “thank . . . our God,” and they are primed to do it “now.” The opening line of the poem captures all of that. To add to this exuberant spirit, the second line claims that this thanks is springing forth from heart, hands, and voices. All the organ stops are pulled out. The triad of heart, hands, and voices foreshadows a technique used throughout the poem of enumerating two, three, or more items—as though one on its own is totally inadequate to express the heightened feelings of the occasion.
The remainder of the opening stanza is a short catalog of blessings for which the thanks in the first line is being expressed—a catalog that ranges from an all-inclusive wondrous things to personal blessings beginning back in our earliest infancy in our mothers’ arms to an expansive countless gifts of love.
The second stanza shifts from a corporate giving of thanks to a corporate prayer or wish. The rhetoric of exuberance continues to explode with an ongoing list of things that the poet wishes for—four of which follow his initial request and are all introduced with “and.” It is as though once the poet started thinking about his subject, his thoughts kept tumbling out one after another. To clinch this expansive burst, the last line speaks of both this world and the next. This poem “thinks big.”
After this middle stanza of prayer, the poem’s final stanza returns to the mode of giving corporate thanks to God. The high style continues unabated in this stanza. Its opening line expresses not simply thanks but praise and thanks. The recipient of this praise is identified not in a general sense as God but as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (the latter of whom is given the exalted epithet him who reigns with them in highest heaven). This eternal God is adored both on earth and in heaven and praised in the past, the present, and the future.
This poem goes “all out” in its exuberant expression of thanks. It exudes energy because its lines are mainly run-on, meaning that a thought keeps flowing at the end of a line instead of stopping. In this and other ways, it perfectly expresses the excitement of a Thanksgiving church service.
Any attempt to link this poem to Bible verses yields the proverbial embarrassment of riches—hymn websites list dozens of examples. One of the passages is the prayer David offered in the assembly of Israel when the people brought contributions for the building of the Temple. After extolling God’s greatness, David prayed,
And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. (1 Chron. 29:13)