Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bringing in the Sheaves

Praise for the Lord #84

Words: Knowles Shaw, 1874
Music: George A. Minor, 1879

Knowles Shaw (1834-1878) was a preacher, singer, and songwriter (of both words and music). In his day he was one of the best known figures in the American Restoration Movement, and a colorful character he was. A witness to Shaw's gospel meeting held in Memphis, Tennessee, described the following scene:
Imagine [another preacher] leaving the pulpit in the midst of his sermon, and, going to the remotest corner of the house, mounting a bench, and singing with most lugubrious air and whine, "How tedious and tasteless the hours," in illustration of the half-hearted, back-slidden Christian, who needs a protracted meeting every six months in order to keep any life in him. But when the protracted meeting has well advanced, this same remote-corner-Christian rushes to the front, singing with great vim, "Am I a soldier of the cross?" just as Brother Shaw did, suiting the action to the word. Well, this is precisely what he did, and what is more, he did it successfully.(Baxter, ch. 12)
Shaw was an exceptional singer by all acounts, and integrated hymns into his sermons as a natural extension of his message, as was the practice of the great evangelistic teams of the day. David Walk, a contemporary preacher who was sometimes critical of Shaw's flamboyance, said nonetheless, "He is as good a singer as either Sankey or the lamented Bliss, an infinitely better preacher than either Moody or Whittle."(Baxter, ch. 12) His biographer made this estimation: "He was as a singer, beyond all doubt, fully the peer of Sankey and Bliss. By many who have heard them, he was deemed superior in some respects to both."(Baxter, ch. 9) Shaw published five hymnals, and lists over forty hymn texts under his name, though he probably wrote more. Besides "Bringing in the sheaves," he is remembered for the words and music of "I am the vine" (PFTL #260) and the music for "We saw Thee not" (PFTL #726) and "Tarry with me" (PFTL #609).

"Bringing in the sheaves" was written in 1874, and was dedicated to the memory of Augustus Damon Fillmore (1823-1870), a fellow preacher and songwriter, the patriarch of a significant American musical family.(Baxter, ch. 9) For some reason this hymn has taken hold of the popular imagination as the go-to cultural reference for American "old-time religion." It has appeared in a lengthy list of movies and television episodes.(Wikipedia) It seems they were singing this hymn every time the Ingalls family went to church on Little House on the Prairie.

Stanza 1:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve,
Waiting for the harvest and the time of reaping--
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

The source of this hymn's famous imagery is Psalm 126, verses 5-6:
Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
But this passage is most fully referenced in the final stanza, and I will discuss it there in more detail.

Wheat sheaves near King's Somborne in Hampshire.
Photo by Trish Steel from Wikimedia Commons.
Ancient Israel was an agrarian society, and Jesus himself grew up in the farming country of Galilee, so the Bible naturally is full of references to the commonplace sights of planting and harvesting. It was difficult work to get a crop out of the dry, drought-prone land of Palestine, and then as now the farmers relied on their store of practical knowledge to get the most from their land. Jesus referred to this common knowledge in John 4:35, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'?" How many city dwellers today could tell you the harvest times of the foods they eat?

The harvest was a joyous time, especially if there was an assurance of a good yield after the uncertainties of the planting and growing season. Reapers would cut off the stalks close to the ground with a scythe, tying up convenient  arm-loads and stacking them in groups for loading onto carts. (The method is still in use in some places today.) The book of Ruth gives a lively, detailed description of the ancient harvest practices, including the harvest feast when the crops were taken in and the work was over.

The Bible makes at least two spiritual applications of this earthly process. On a personal level, our actions and course of life, good or bad, are often compared to planting seed that grows to a harvest--good or bad. And in a more outward-looking sense, our efforts toward spreading the gospel and leading others to Christ are frequently compared to sowing seed that will bring about a harvest in the lives of others.

I believe the most complete and concise statement of the first point is given in Galatians 6, verses 7-9:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
The absolute nature of this law is underscored by the parable of the tares (or "weeds") in Matthew 13:24-30, which Jesus concludes with the warning, "Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, 'Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'" The wheat and the tares were growing side by side, and were apparently impossible to separate, but a final reckoning would sort each out. God will not be mocked; His just judgment will return a harvest fitting to the seed that is sown.

The Hebrew Testament spoke this truth in proverb and prophecy, and often with great poetic beauty. Proverbs 22:8 says, "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity," returning on himself the misfortunes he causes to others. Hosea 8:7 goes a step further, famously warning, "For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind." The result of continued sowing of wicked deeds is presented in terrifying language in Joel 3:13--"Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the winepress is full. The vats overflow, for their evil is great." When God "tramples out the vintage" of His "grapes of wrath," it is not a sight any wise person wants to witness. But even in the absence of great wickedness, the lack of good deeds has its consequences: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."(Jeremiah 8:20)

On the positive side, the Bible also presents the harvest as a long-awaited recompense for the righteous person's struggles. Hosea, though so much of his prophecy was of punishment, also exhorted the people with this beautiful picture of a better harvest to come: "Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that He may come and rain righteousness upon you."(Hosea 10:12) James seems almost to echo these words in this passage: "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace."(James 3:17-18)

In this sense we are all farmers, planting seed every day in the words we say and the things we do, for either good or bad; our harvest is being determined now, both in quality and proportion. "Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully."(2 Corinthians 9:6)

Another Scripture application of planting and harvesting is in the work of spreading the gospel. As the crowd of Samaritans was coming out to Jacob's well to see this amazing prophet who they thought might even be the Messiah, Jesus said to His disciples, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest."(John 4:35) I remember seeing fields of wheat outside my home town in the plains of northern Oklahoma, and as the wind bends the stalks, the sun catches the sides of the lighter-colored heads of grain and creates the appearance of waves of white across the gold. McGarvey suggests that the appearance of the crowd of Samaritans, their light-colored cotton robes and headgear bobbing in the distance as they approached, may have evoked this comparison in Jesus' mind.(McGarvey, pt.4, sec.26) A field of ripe wheat is a beautiful thing, because it means mouths fed (and bills paid, for the farmer!), but how much more beautiful is a willing audience for the gospel!

Jesus gave the responsibility for that harvest to His disciples, both those then present and those yet to come. "I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."(John 4:38) This is an encouraging thought, but also one that lays a responsibility upon us. We are not alone in the work; others are laboring as well, and if we are not immediately and visibly successful in our efforts to share the faith, we should remember what Paul said of the church in Corinth, "I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase."(1 Corinthians 3:6) This process is not one that we always understand, operating as it does in the sphere of God's providence:
And [Jesus] said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."(Mark 4:26-29)
At the same time, we need to remember that Jesus also said, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."(Luke 10:2) We have a great responsibility to our fellow laborers in the field--to those who went before us, that we carry on their work in a way that honors God and them, and to those who come after us, that we leave them in good shape to carry the work forward. Paul continued in the same passage,
For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.(1 Corinthians 3:9-10)
Stanza 2:
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter's chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest and the labor ended--
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.


Another of the great parables of Jesus involving planting and harvesting, of course, is the parable of the sower, one of the relatively few parables that appears in each of the first three gospels. It is also called the "parable of the soils" because its emphasis is on the effect of different soils (types of hearts) on the success of the seed (the gospel). But if I may stretch a point--perhaps further than intended by the parable, which is easy to do--there might be an observation worth making about the sower as well.

The planting done here is by the broadcast method, taking handfuls of seeds and scattering them over an area, rather than deliberately planting in a more organized fashion such as a furrow. Using this process, the sower in the parable scatters the seed over a number of different types of soil, some of which are not productive. Would the sower be blamed for that? Probably not; in the literal planting process, which I have done in planting lettuce and mustard greens, this is just part of the process. You scatter a large quantity of seed, knowing that some of it will not produce for various reasons, but counting on the fact that much of it will.

When we spread the gospel by various means--in person, one-to-one, or by a broadcast method such as public assemblies, television, radio, or Internet--we cannot always know the type of soil beforehand. Now, our supply of seed is unlimited, but our time and means of planting it is not. Why not use every legitimate method available to get the gospel to as many people as possible--a literal "broadcast" method of planting?

I think that is the point of this stanza. Whether we have sunshine or shadow, spread the gospel. If the weather is unpleasant, cloudy and threatening, still plant the seed. Get the word out. We may never see the result of it, but that does not mean it is not worth doing. "He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame."(Proverbs 10:5) I don't mean that there is anything wrong with focusing on a field obviously ripe for harvest--Paul did this, explaining once that, "I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries."(1 Corinthians 16:9) And obviously we shouldn't waste our time when it is really obvious we are wasting our time. Jesus did say, after all, not to "cast your pearls before swine,"(Matthew 7:6) and I agree with McGarvey's commentary on this verse, "To give pearls to swine is to press the claims of the gospel upon those who despise it until they persecute you for annoying them with it. When such men are known, they are to be avoided."(McGarvey, pt.5, sec.42) This makes good sense and has the approval of Jesus when He said, "wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them."(Luke 9:5)

But how often have we really tried to share Jesus, to the point that the uninterested worldly person is complaining about it (not that this is the goal, or that we should be annoying about it), as opposed to deciding in advance that the person is "not a good prospect?" I plead guilty; you decide for yourself. "He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap."(Ecclesiastes 11:4) This is good advice for farming, good advice for life generally, and good advice for sharing the gospel. The time is shorter than we think for all of us; we need to get busy in the fields of the Lord, and if we meet a little discomfort or opposition, all the better for our growth in being like Christ.

Stanza 3:
Go then even weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping's over He will bid us welcome--
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.


This stanza makes several references to Psalm 126, the language of which lies behind the entire hymn. Here is the entire psalm, in the King James Version in which Shaw would have read it:
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion,
   We were like them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
   And our tongue with singing:
Then said they among the heathen,
   The Lord hath done great things for them.
The Lord hath done great things for us;
   Whereof we are glad.

Turn again our captivity, O Lord,
   As the streams in the south.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He that goeth forth and weepeth,
   Bearing precious seed,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
   Bringing his sheaves with him.
This is a complicated little text, like many of the Psalms of Ascents from which it come. The first section speaks of a deliverance accomplished; the second, of a deliverance yet unfulfilled. Is the writer released from captivity, or still in it? This may date Psalm 126 to the post-exile period, when God's people were so to speak "out of the frying pan and into the fire," having been released from foreign bondage but subjected to fears and threats in their old homeland. In a broader view, however, this reminds us that as long as we are in this world, our victory is not complete. Leslie Allen comments on this aspect of the Psalm that, "God’s people are sustained with the resource of prayer and with the assurances of both His past salvation and His inherent faithfulness. Present distress is no argument for the denial of Yahweh’s power or grace."(174)

But why is the sower weeping as he goes? There may be echoes here of the ancients' association of sowing and reaping with death and rebirth.(Miller, 406) Jesus even took up this imagery and recast it into a greater spiritual truth:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.(John 12:24-25)
But there may be an even simpler answer: farming is hard work. The planting is a great deal of effort and investment, and the harvest is the payoff. R.E.O. White comments on these verses,
The casting of precious grain upon the dry soil, in helpless hope of rain, would often seem a desperate choice when wife and children cried for bread.  After any poor season and dry summer, sowing cost discipline and tears, demanding deep faith that the seed sack would be exchanged for sheaves.(189)
Looking back to the personal application of the "sowing and reaping," this stanza of Shaw's hymn reminds us that we will often forgo the easy path in this life, taking the path of tears and struggle when we could opt for an easier road. Whatever the sacrifice, we know we will be rewarded in the end with a rich harvest.

In view of Shaw's own experiences, however, I believe this stanza refers more specifically to his efforts in spreading the gospel. Shaw's work as a revivalist kept him away from home the majority of the year. This was trial enough on a family, but tragedy was added to trial as he lost three of his five children within just four years' time. The year 1869 was almost unbearable; his youngest, Knowles Jr., died in August, then in December his oldest child, Georgie Anna, age fourteen, became gravely ill. Shaw broke off a meeting and rushed home in time to be with her before her death.(Baxter, ch. 9) When Shaw wrote of the "spirit deeply grieved" by the "loss sustained," it was not a poetic exaggeration.

Most of us will not be called upon to make the sacrifices of a man of Shaw's talents. But there is a place for us to serve in spreading the Lord's good news. If it requires some effort and sacrifice, "rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ's sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy."(1 Peter 4:13)

About the music:

Though Shaw wrote his own music for the text, the universally known tune is by George A. Minor (1845-1904). Born in Richmond, Virginia, Minor was educated in a military academy and served in the Civil War; but following that conflict he turned to a career in music. He directed the Sunday School at the First Baptist Church in Richmond, and published several hymnals. This tune, however, is the only one of his works to remain in common use.

How much Minor's military experience influenced his music is impossible to say without examining more of his music, but this tune certainly matches the style of military marches of the day, with simple dotted rhythms indicating a martial character. (The more robust American march style of John Philip Sousa was still a generation away.) The short phrases and upbeat tempo make this tune easy to sing while working or marching, and have probably contributed to its lasting popularity.


Baxter, William. Life of Knowles Shaw, the Singing Evangelist. Cincinnati: Central Book Concern, 1879.

"Bringing in the sheaves." Wikipedia.

McGarvey, John W. The Fourfold Gospel. Cincinnati: Standard Publishing, 1914.

Allen, Leslie C. Psalms 101-150, vol. 21 of Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983.

Miller, Clyde M. Psalms pt. 2, v. 10 of The Living Word Commentary. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1980.

White, R.E.O. A Christian handbook to the Psalms. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.

"George Austin Minor." Cyberhymnal.


  1. Actually, I have seen Shaw's original tune, and it is quite similar to that with which we're familiar. In fact, Flavil Hall in his books claimed that Shaw wrote both text and tune and then Minor "arranged" Shaw's music to make it more singable. I don't know if that's true or not, but having seen the tune by Shaw it seems likely.

  2. Wayne, thanks for this information. Hall would have been in a position to know, so this is probably true.