America’s National Thanksgiving Hymn Two Centuries Ago
by Rev. David T. Myers
We start out this post with the words of a patriotic hymn. Granted, it will not be found in the Trinity Hymnal, but it was found in the official hymnbook of the Presbyterian Psalms and Hymns, published in Princeton, New Jersey in 1829. The author of it was not a minister, but a physician. Alfred Woodhull was his name and he was born on this day, March 25, 1810. But back to the hymn. Consider these majestic words:
Great God of nations, now to Thee Our hymn of gratitude we raise; With humble heart and bending knee We offer Thee our songs of praise.
Thy Name we bless, Almighty God, For all the kindness Thou hast shown To this fair land the Pilgrims trod, This land we fondly call our own.
Here freedom spreads her banner wide And casts her soft and hallowed ray; Here Thou our father’s steps didst guide In safety through their dangerous way.
We praise Thee that the gospel’s life Through all our land its radiance shed, Dispel the shades of error’s night, And heav’nly blessings round us spread.
Great God, preserve us in Thy fear; In danger still our Guardian be; O spread Thy truth’s bright concepts here; Let all the people worship Thee. Amen.
Alfred Alexander Woodhull had the benefit of a godly father who was himself a Presbyterian minister, George Woodhull. The father’s first church was the Presbyterian church in Cranbury, New Jersey. In 1820, the whole family moved to Princeton, New Jersey and stayed the next twelve years ministering to the people of God in that college and seminary town. The late William O. Harris, former archivist at the Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote something of the Woodhull family, focusing on young Alfred’s grandfather, the Rev. John Woodhull :—
“One of the founders of Princeton Seminary, the Reverend John Woodhull, while pastor of a Presbyterian church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1776, advocated from his pulpit so eloquently the cause of American independence that every male member of his congregation capable of bearing arms enlisted in the Continental Army. He went with them as their chaplain. During the Battle of Monmouth in 1778, he looked up and saw the Old Tennent Church high on a hill above the battlefield. He felt strongly that he would be called to that church, and he was. He continued as pastor there until his death in 1824. He helped to found Princeton Seminary in 1812, assisting in teaching practical theology and serving as vice president of the Board of Trustees from 1812 until his death in 1824. His son, George Woodhull, was a longtime pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Princeton. His son, General Alfred A. Woodhull, served in the Army Medical Corps throughout his career, rising to be surgeon general. In retirement, he lived in Princeton and was a great friend to the Seminary.”
Meanwhile, Alfred, through independent study, was able to enter the university as a second year student. After graduating from it, he went to the Pennsylvania to study medicine, and after graduation and residency, became a medical doctor. Eventually moving back to Princeton in 1835, he began a practice there. Loved as a sincere, devout, and humble Christian Presbyterian, he contracted a fever and tragically died on October 5, 1836. His death was greatly lamented by the citizens of the town and area.
Words to Live By:
James reminds us in chapter 4, verse 15 of his New Testament letter that we “are just like a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” All of our lives are that fragile, unless the Lord determines to keep us on this earth for a time. Let us remember that and buy up every opportunity for worship and work in God’s kingdom. And let us pray and work for our beloved country so that God would have his church “spread God’s truth’s bright concepts here” so that our citizens “would worship the God” of the Bible.