Thanksgiving hymns are a few centuries old, tops – but biblical psalms of gratitude and praise go back thousands of years

Thanksgiving doesn’t ring in the ear for months on end, unlike another holiday that lies just ahead. Yet readers may remember a couple of hymns that roll around each November in church, around the dinner table, or even – for readers of a certain age – in school. One I remember well is “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Then there’s “We Gather Together,” or “We Plough the Fields and Scatter.”

Interestingly, for songs associated with a distinctly American holiday, none have American origins. “Come, Ye Thankful People” was written by Henry Alford, a 19th-century English cleric who ascended to become dean of Canterbury Cathedral and supposedly rose to his feet to give thanks after every meal and at the close of every day. “We Gather Together” is much older, written in 1597 to celebrate the Dutch victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Turnhout. “We Plough the Fields” was written by a German Lutheran in 1782.

As someone who studies American culture and religious music, I’m interested in the backstory of the songs that we have come to take for granted. Someone wandering into a church and picking up a hymnal will likely find a handful of hymns filed under “thanksgiving,” but many more express a general sense of gratitude, such as “Now Thank We All Our God” and “For the Beauty of the Earth.” Even more hymns fall under the related category of praise – after all, a common response to feeling blessed or rescued is to offer praise to the higher being thought to bestow those gifts.

None of these impulses are uniquely Christian, or even religious. But hymns of praise and gratitude have been central to Jewish and Christian worship for millennia. In fact, they go back to one of the best-known scenes in the Hebrew Bible.

Fleeing Pharaoh

The earliest musical performance mentioned in the Hebrew Bible is “The Song of the Sea,” referring to two songs Moses and his sister Miriam sing to celebrate the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. As Pharaoh’s army pursues the fleeing slaves to the edge of the Red Sea, God opens a dry path for them before closing up the sea to swallow the soldiers, according to the Book of Exodus:

Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.’

Jewish singer Debbie Friedman, who died in 2011, wrote “Miriam’s Song,” adapting these lines from Exodus into a modern favorite.