Above: Old methods still in use in Warwickshire (near Coventry) in 1933
This weekend, churches everywhere are celebrating the Harvest – but strange as it may seem, the Harvest Festival as we know it is a tradition that’s less than two hundred years old, and was invented by a local vicar in the tiny (but beautiful) North Cornish Parish of Morwenstow.
Mechanisation has undoubtedly taken most of the romance out of the harvest season, but it was not so long ago that the last loaded wagons drawn by a team of horses, with garlands, ribbons and flowers, rolled back to the farm to begin the Harvest Home, with good food, dancing, singing and general merriment. As the last wagon rolled to a halt a young reaper would shout:
We have ploughed, we have sowed,
We have reaped, we have mowed,
We have brought home every load,
Hip Hip Hip – Harvest Home!
Then the cakes and beer came out and – on with the dance. For this evening, master, rector and labourer sat down with no distinction between them, and there would be visitors from other farms, since the farmers pooled their labour at this time. Much of this disappeared with the replacement of the horse by the tractor, yet such is the sense of heritage and tradition that Harvest Home continues to be linked with Harvest Thanksgiving in parish churches throughout England and Wales.
The Church had for hundreds of years taken an interest in the Harvest customs. A peal of bells from the tower would greet the harvest, wheat and other produce had been blessed in the church and even the corn dolly was allowed to grace the church door, although it was soon transformed into a cross. The Sixteenth Century Reformation discouraged this, but in 1843 the vicar of Morwenstow issued a notice inviting parishioners to receive the Sacrament in bread of the new corn. This morning’s Harvest Thanksgiving service broadcast on BBC Radio Four came from Wallingford in rural south Oxfordshire, and recalled this event:
The Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker was a somewhat eccentric man. He was not what you might call a conventional priest, refusing to wear clerical black, instead wearing a purple three-quarter length coat, and underneath the coat a thick fisherman’s jersey, to show people that, like Jesus, he was a ‘fisher of men’. On top of this he wore long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and apparently kept a pig as a pet.
Hawker became famous for giving Christian burials to shipwrecked mariners washed up on the shores of the parish, and was often the first to reach the cliffs when there was a shipwreck.
In 1843 he began a tradition which lives to this day. One September day, he nailed up, in the church porch, an open invitation to his parishioners…
“Let us gather together in the chancel of our church…and there receive in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.”
A few days later, on 1st October, the first Harvest festival took place, during which bread made from the first cut of corn was taken at communion. From these humble beginnings, Harvest festivals are now celebrated in churches throughout the world.
For many years, Thanksgiving became an ‘Evensong’ service in parish churches, but the was suitably decorated all day long with all God’s gifts around us, as the popular hymn, We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land… has it. The Harvest Festival is still one of the best-attended services in churches of all denominations throughout Britain, especially popular with children and families, with the ‘gifts’ presented and displayed often then given to local charities. In recent decades, the other ‘harvests’ of the sea, mining and manufacturing have also been recognised, especially in coastal and urban districts.