The traditional English harvest festival that the Pilgrims brought with them was likely that known as "Harvest Home." This festival is said to have been held from ancient times on the last day of harvest, usually in late September, and was observed by singing, shouting, decorating the village with boughs and other customs of pagan origin.
Over the years after the Pilgrims' feast, the more secular harvest festival was combined with a religious day of thanksgiving. In 1777 the Continental Congress proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, but the tradition was not widely upheld until 1863 when President Lincoln declared a national Thanksgiving Day to be held annually on the last Thursday of November.
One of our enduringly popular hymns sung at Thanksgiving time, "Come Ye Thankful People," was written by an English clergyman, Henry Alford, about 1844. The first verse refers to the English harvest festival mentioned above, in the line 'Raise the song of Harvest-home.' The author entreats us in this verse to recognize that God has created us and has provided what we need. He invites us to come to the house of God and sing songs of gratitude for the harvest. It is significant to note that songs can be sung silently in the heart and mind, as well as vocally. None are excluded. In the Bible, the term "Temple" in Psalms refers to 'thy house.' The author's meaning in the line "Come to God's own temple" is apparently intended to refer to a sacred place of worship where God's spirit could be present, as represented in the photo above.
In the second verse the author uses the concept of 'harvest' metaphorically to refer to people and their behavior and relationship with God. Much of the text appears to be based on the parable of the wheat and tares found in Matthew 13, and also the Bible verse, Mark 4:28, which speaks of "the blade, then the ear…" The author's mention of wheat and tares connects with joy and sorrow, and the plea that we are found to be wholesome grain, as it refers to the conclusion of the parable where the wheat is gathered into the Lord's barn but the tares are bundled and burned.
The hymn text is believed to have first appeared in the author's 1844 collection "Psalms and Hymns," published at London, England. The heading designation "After Harvest" was apparently the season of the year at which the hymn is intended to be used. The publication included four verses.
The hymn tune in 4/4 time almost exclusively associated with "Come, Ye Thankful People" is known as ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR and is said to have been composed for a different hymn with which it was first published in 1858. A few years later it appeared with our hymn in W.H. Monk's collection "Hymns Ancient and Modern" published for the Church of England in 1861. The tune is believed to have been named for the Chapel in Windsor, England where the composer served as organist. (See image below of this original publication.)
The music published in 1861 has changed very little over the years, mainly the key signature and type of notation. The text in this edition has a number of variations from the 1844 version and may have been one of the reasons that the author made a few revisions to his original work and included the hymn text in his 1868 collection "The Poetical Works of Henry Alford." He included a note at the bottom of the page in the publication to the effect that unauthorized versions were being used and stated that this was the only authorized version. The text of the first two verses in this edition is essentially unchanged in the hymn sung today. (See the image of the 1868 edition below.)
The third and fourth verses expand the 'wheat and tares' principles of the second verse to include the Second Coming of the Lord.
"For the Lord our God shall come,
And shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day
All offences purge away;
Give His angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store
In His garner evermore.
Even so, Lord, quickly come,
Bring Thy final Harvest-home!
Gather Thou Thy people in,
Free from sorrow, free from sin;
There for ever purified In Thy garner to abide:
Come with all Thine angels, come,
Raise the glorious Harvest-home!"
As explained in Matthew 13, the fruitful ears to be gathered before the winter storms, or the end of the world, and stored in the Lord's heavenly garner (granary or grain bin) are the righteous people of His kingdom.
Although the author of the hymn text was a clergyman of the Church of England, the symbolism of his text may have an additional layer of meaning to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). The LDS doctrine of family history research and vicarious baptismal and saving ordinances for deceased ancestors performed in dedicated Temples illuminates another type of harvest of souls taking place in the Lord's kingdom.
Inward songs of rejoicing are regularly raised in Temples around the world, over family names found and connections established as people come to His House to perform the ordinances.
The first two verses of "Come, Ye Thankful People" were included in the 1948 edition of "Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" (LDS Hymnal). The same key was used as in the 1861 version. The hymn continued in the current 1985 edition with a slightly lower key and minor changes to music notation and text punctuation.
A classic hymn with much symbolism, "Come, Ye Thankful People" has given succeeding generations an expression of gratitude and praise.