In a nation overflowing with every kind of food imaginable, streets lined with glittering stores stuffed full of clothing and toys, and amenities like water and electricity at our fingertips, perhaps it’s hard to imagine how one of our most beautiful and heartfelt Thanksgiving hymns could have been written in a time of indescribable hardship.
Martin Rinkart could tell a different story.
Born to a poor coppersmith on April 23, 1586 in Eilenburg, Germany, Rinkart was determined to be a minister. He managed to scrape up enough money to put himself through the University of Leipzig, where he studied theology. After years of hard work, Rinkart was asked to return to his hometown as a Lutheran clergyman, where he soon became an archdeacon.
One year later, ignited by a religious conflict-turned-political feud, the Thirty Years’ War exploded across Europe.
A walled city, Eilenburg quickly became a place of refuge for thousands of frightened and displaced Germans fleeing the devastating conflict. The sudden overcrowding caused widespread food shortages, and starving residents soon began fighting in the streets for dead cats and birds.
On top of the famine, densely-packed humanity and filth soon led to an outbreak of plague. Rinkart and the three other town pastors began officiating ten or more funerals a day -- each. One overwhelmed pastor eventually fled and two others died, leaving Rinkart the sole minister in the desperate and overpopulated city.
Alone, Rinkart was tasked with burying up to 50 people a day, including his own wife. By the end of the ordeal, he’d conducted nearly 4,500 funerals. The dead eventually became so numerous they had to be buried in mass trenches without services.
In the face of overwhelming pressure, constant risk and horrendous conditions, Rinkart never stopped ministering to the people of his city. He gave away nearly everything he owned to the poor and needy, though he could barely clothe and feed his own children. He mortgaged his own future income to provide for his family and his community.
At one point toward the end of the war, the Swedish army surrounded the city and demanded an enormous ransom from the impoverished and starving citizens. Knowing his people didn’t have the money, Rinkart pleaded with the Swedes to lower the amount, only to be rejected.
It’s reported that Rinkart returned to the city, fell on his knees and said, "Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God." He then began to pray so fervently that the Swedish general was moved to lower his price to less than five percent of the original sum.
After nearly thirty years of ceaseless struggles, it began to look like peace was within grasp. Wanting to give his children a song to sing to God in thanks at the dinner table, Rinkart sat down and composed what would become one of the most well known Thanksgiving hymns of all time -- “Now Thank We All Our God.” In fact, it's been said that aside from Martin Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," no other song is sung more often in Lutheran churches today than Rinkart's simple tune.
Tired and worn, Rinkart died in 1649, only a year after the war’s end, leaving behind some of the simplest and sincere lyrics still being sung by choirs and congregations across the world:
Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices;
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom this world rejoices.
Who, from our mother's arms,
Hath led 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,
to keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.
All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
Listen to an amazing rendition of Rinkart's hymn sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir here: