Be Thankful for Anna Barbauld

I noticed in a hymnal that one of the authors of the favorite Thanksgiving hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” was Anna Laetitia Barbauld.  How could I have missed her before now?  And who was she?  Why doesn’t she get the credit for the hymn in other hymnals?  I had to delve harder than usual to get the answer.  But first, who was she?

Anna Laetitia Aikin was known in her day as a prominent English poet, essayist, literary critic, editor and children’s author.  She was born in 1743, the daughter of a dissenting Presbyterian minister and teacher in Leicestershire, England.  Before marrying Rev. Rochemont Barbauld at the ripe old age of 30, she had written and published hymns and poems and worked as a tutor.  Her husband was from a French Huguenot refugee family and became a dissenting Presbyterian minister. She continued to write hymns, some of which are still in mostly Unitarian hymnals.  With her husband, she established a boarding school.  Though childless, they did adopt her nephew.  As with many Sisters in Song, she wrote hymns for children and published several books.    Later, her writing focused on politics and social concerns,  She wrote in favor of abolition of slavery, freedom of religion, women’s rights, revolutionary politics (keep in mind the American Revolution was a big issue then), and international issues.  As time passed, her husband became mentally ill and violent.  In 1808, he attacked her with a knife and chased her about the dining room.  She leapt through a window into the garden, and shortly thereafter, they separated to preserve her safety.  Several months later, her husband escaped from his keeper and drowned himself.  She sought comfort in her faith and writings.  Her last independently published writing was Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, a Poem that criticized the war between Britain and France and prophesied that Britain’s powers would dwindle and the new country of the United States would surpass it.  She was so sharply vilified for this in her home country that this was the last thing she ever published.  However, she continued to write up to her death in 1825.  In her lifetime, she had been acclaimed for her talent, and received the admiration of Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.   After her last published poem, she was largely forgotten.  Many of her papers and unpublished works were preserved by her nieces, but lost in the bombing of London in 1940.  Today, she is being reclaimed as a respected talented writer.

So what about “Come Ye Thankful People, Come”?  Henry Alford wrote the lyrics in his poem “After Harvest” with the second verse based on Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the wheat and tares together sown. Barbauld had written an earlier hymn, “Praise to God, Immortal Praise” with the same meter and also in keeping with the thanksgiving theme.  Some hymnbook editors preferred her writing to Alford’s and replaced his second verse with an excerpt of her hymn.  Some hymnbooks, including my own denomination’s Chalice Hymnal, also replaced his verse, but without attribution to her.  Perhaps someone can look into this someday.  Meanwhile, her hymn, “Praise to God, Immortal Praise”has appeared in 457 hymnbooks according to http://www.hymnary.org.

One thought on “Be Thankful for Anna Barbauld

  1. Chased her around the table with a knife and she jumped a window into the garden! Hymn writing can be dangerous business!

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