We plough the fields, and scatter

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand:
he sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes, and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain.

This well-known harvest hymn might appear to come from the English countryside, but it has rather different origins. It is the "Peasant's Song" from a sketch by Matthias Claudius in Paul Erdmann's Fest (Hamburg, 1782), depicting a harvest thanksgiving in a North German farmhouse. It was based upon a peasants' song which he heard sung at the home of one of the farmers. Claudius was for some time an atheist, but later renewed his Christian faith. At the time of writing this hymn he was editor of the local paper in Hesse Darmstadt, where he was also a Commissioner of Agriculture.

The hymn was originally seventeen verses long, each followed by a refrain, and was translated into English by Miss Jane Montgomery Campbell. This translation, though not very literal, does preserve the spirit of the original. It first appeared in Rev Charles S Bere's A Garland of Songs (1861) and subsequently in the Appendix (1868) to Hymns Ancient and Modern, where verse 3 was revised to the present text from the original:

line 5 - No gifts have we to offer... (rev. Accept the gifts we offer)
line 7 - But that which thou desirest... (rev. And, what thou most desirest...)

This alteration was probably introduced to make the hymn suitable for services where harvest produce was on view or offered by the worshippers, although the English Hymnal continues to use the original words.

There are several Biblical references. Verse 1, Acts 14:17; refrain, Matthew 7:11, James 1:17. Verse 2, line 5, Psalm 65:7, Matthew 8:27; line 6, Matthew 6:26; line 8, Matthew 6:11. Verse 3, line 3, Genesis 8:22; line 8, Psalm 51:17.

Tune - Wir pflügen

The tune Wir pflügen (Dresden), by J A P Schülz, first appeared in Hoppenstedt's Lieder für Volksschulen (Hanover, 1800) where it was set to Claudius's hymn (by now shortened to six verses). Schültz (1747-1800) was Kapellmeister first to Prince Henry of Prussia (1780-87) and then subsequently at the Court of Copenhagen (1787-95). Schültz's health was permanently damaged trying to save the music library when the Danish Royal Palace was burned down in 1795. The tune first appeared in England associated with the current words in The Bible Class Magazine (November 1854) and was arranged and harmonised by Rev J B Dykes for the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1868).

Nigel Day

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th August 1997