The text of “We Plow the Fields and Scatter,” penned in German by Matthias Claudius (1740-1815), was not originally written as a hymn but as a chorus for a dramatic sketch that Claudius published in 1782. In the sketch—entitled “Paul Erdmann’s Feast”—a band of peasants that show up at Erdmann’s (i.e. earth-man) house and sing this song. Our English hymn has only three stanzas of the original seventeen, but what we gather from these scant details is that the peasant farmers gather at Erdmann’s to celebrate the providence of God in granting the harvest increase. Peasants aren’t sophisticated folk, but they manage to speak truth.
Providence is an old fashioned idea. It was beginning to be passé even in Claudius’s day. My son and I recently read a child’s biography of Benjamin Franklin in which the author praised Franklin for his many great inventions and innovations, including the new-fangled idea crop loss insurance for farmers. It was slow to catch on because—as the author told us—belief in Divine Providence was widespread. People thought increase and loss were God’s business, not man’s. Franklin was not a particularly religious man. We call him a Deist and a rationalist. He believed in the natural laws of cause and effect, not miracles.
Franklin’s contemporary, Matthias Claudius, was a banker, and like Franklin, was a journalist, an editor, and a man of state. He was raised in the Faith, the son of a Lutheran pastor, but in his youth apparently drifted from Christianity for rationalist philosophy. In 1777 a bout of illness returned him to the Faith. I imagine him, like Robinson Crusoe, who teetering on the brink of death, was spared, and out of gratitude for God’s providential mercy became committed to a life of belief. What we’ve always been told by our fathers and mothers, and heard testified to by simpletons is true. As the Good Book says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). And, God “left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).