One of the nation’s most enduringly popular harvest hymns began its journey in a German poem published in 1782. According to William J. Petersen, Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) never had any intention of writing a hymn. Claudius was a German journalist and philosopher who was merely writing a poem about a group of peasants gathering for a banquet and singing a “Peasants’ Song”. The seventeen-stanza poem, originally entitled “Paul Erdmann’s Fest” depicts friends coming over to Paul Erdmann’s house and enjoying themselves. It praises both Paul Erdmann for his hospitality and God as the ultimate source of the feast.
The poem begins with a description of Creation, “In the beginning”:
Am Anfang war’s auf Erden noch finster, wüst und leer;
und sollt was sein und werden, mußt es woanders her.
So ist es zugegangen im Anfang, als Gott sprach;
und wie es angefangen, so geht’s noch diesen Tag.
By the third stanza we find more familiar words:
Wir pflügen, und wir streuen den Samen auf das Land,
doch Wachstum und Gedeihen steht in des Himmels Hand:
der tut mit leisem Wehen sich mild und heimlich auf
und träuft, wenn heim wir gehen, Wuchs und Gedeihen drauf.
Alle gute Gabe kommt her von Gott dem Herrn,
drum dankt ihm dankt, drum dankt ihm dankt
und hofft auf ihn.
The original tune was not the familiar one of today. That came later (1800), and was attributed to J.A.P. Schulz in 1818 with the title (unsurprisingly) “Wir Pflügen”, with minor alterations to the refrain.
“We Plow The Fields And Scatter” was the opening line of Jane Montgomery Campbell’s translation of selected verses of the poem, first published in 1861. It appeared in the 1868 Appendix to the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (evidently as ‘modern’!) with a few small textual amendments to make it more appropriate for services at which the harvest produce was on view or offered by the worshippers, and it has become the more widely-used form. It is extremely widespread today, with hymnary.org listing 368 hymnals containing this hymn.
Gen 8:22; Deut 26:1-11; 1 Chron 29:14; Job 37:6, 12-14; Ps 65:5-11, 104, 145:16; Isa 55:10; Ezek 34:26-27; Matt 6:9-11, 24-34, 7:11, 8:26-27; Luke 11:2-13; Acts 14:17; 1 Cor 3:6-7; James 1:17.
More recently, Brian Wren has written a version that more accurately reflects modern farming methods. It begins:
1 We plough and sow with tractors
and bale the new-mown hay,
we reap the fields with combines
to bring our harvest day…
It seems that “Wir” shall continue to “Pflügen” for many years to come!