History of Hymns: 'Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart”
by Henry Smith
The Faith We Sing, 2036
“[Give] thanks always for all things unto God and the Father
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."
(Ephesians 5:20, KJV)
“Behold, we live, as punished, and not killed, as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,
as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."
(2 Corinthians 6:9b–10, ESV)
For complete text of “Give Thanks,” see: https://genius.com/Henry-smith-give-thanks-lyrics.
Henry Smith Jr. (b. 1952) has composed approximately three hundred worship songs, but “Give Thanks” (1978) is the only one to be published and extensively recorded. During the early years of the song’s use, the composer was unknown. Occasionally credit was ascribed to someone else. Smith was born in Crossnore, North Carolina. Though he started piano lessons in his early years, his brother’s guitar piqued his interest in music. He taught himself to play by reading a guitar manual and soon began composing songs.
During his years as a student at King’s College (Bristol, Tennessee), music became more important to him, deciding that “I only wanted to write songs for Christ” (Terry, 2002, p. 58). “Give Thanks” was written in 1978 in response to a sermon given by the pastor at Williamsburg New Testament Church (Virginia), preaching on 2 Corinthians 6:10. Soon afterward, Henry and his future wife Cindy sang the song at the church on several occasions. A military couple attending the church took the song with them to Germany, where they were stationed. The song then developed a life of its own.
It was not until 1986 that a friend brought Smith a cassette tape of a recording of the song by Integrity Music, who had listed the author as “unknown.” Henry Smith contacted the publisher. They informed him that they had been trying to locate the composer because the song had been recorded more than fifty times and published in several collections. The song first appeared as an octavo, “Give Thanks” (Mobile, AL, 1978). Donald Hustad’s The Worshiping Church (Carol Stream, IL, 1990) may have been the first standard hymnal to carry it. Evangelical British/American hymnwriter Bryan Jeffery Leech (1931–2015) heard the song at Billy Graham’s “Mission England” Crusade in 1989 and recommended it to the hymnal committee (Hustad, 1990, no. 496). It started to spread beyond Evangelicals. Twenty-first-century hymnals continue to publish the song, attesting to its sustained use.
Contemporary Christian artist Don Moen (b. 1950) met Henry Smith in Washington, D.C., at an Integrity Music conference and played a recording of the song in Russian. “My wife and I began to weep. We were overwhelmed to hear my song in that language. Moen had no idea we were in the audience” (Terry, 2002, p. 59).
The song’s strength lies in the text’s biblical foundation, rhetorical construction, and the music's coherence. The biblical underpinnings are cited above. The effective repetition of the imperative “Give thanks” at the beginning of three successive lines in the first part of the refrain (anaphora) has a cumulative effect. The composer repeats section one, giving a total of six reiterations of “Give thanks.” The scriptural basis for whole-hearted thanks is abundant throughout the Psalms (9:1; 86.12; 111:1; 138:1). The second part of the refrain continues effectively with “let the weak” and “let the poor” in successive lines. Each section concludes with a “because” clause that balances the anaphora of the earlier phrases: “because he’s given Jesus Christ his Son” (section one); “because of what the Lord has done for us” (section two).
Carl Daw Jr. identifies the characteristics of the effective melody: “Much of the coherence of this tune comes from the use of sequences. The second phrase, for example, is a third-lower sequence of the first phrase. Then in the repeated middle section there are three successive phrases, each one step lower than the preceding one” (Daw, 2016, p. 615). In short, the song is a perfect blend of simplicity, symmetry, and artistry.
Henry Smith composed the song during a time of unemployment, financial insecurity, and an uncertain future due to a degenerative visual impairment that would eventually lead to his becoming legally blind. No doubt he found strength in Paul’s words, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10, NIV).
“Give Thanks” is truly an international song of gratitude. Selected YouTube presentations follow:
- Don Moen recording session: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blbslHDgceY.
- Loalwa Braz, lead singer for Kaoma, a French Brazilian band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11o8m7CKjYQ.
- A Spanish version by John Jesudason: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIWWQokrIvE.
- A Russian version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SIHMI4yAlU.
- The Chinese band Faiwsu: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrRKEk2FEDc.
- My favorite, Yohan Kim, a popular young Korean pianist, adds a jazz touch to the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikoYQA7-jOk.
David Cain, “Give Thanks—Henry Smith,” Song Scoops (October 23, 2010), https://songscoops.blogspot.com/2010/ (accessed September 4, 2021).
Carl P. Daw Jr. Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
Donald P. Hustad, ed. The Worshiping Church: Worship Leader’s Edition (Carol Stream, IL: 60188).
Lindsay Terry, The Sacrifice of Praise (Nashville: Integrity Publishers, 2002).
Verses marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
Verses marked NIV are from Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.