By David Kopel
Volokh.com. Nov. 21, 2012. More by Kopel on Protestantism and Liberty.
The Thanksgiving Hymn We Gather Together was originally written in Dutch for an already-familiar melody, and was a celebration of the victory of the Dutch (who were Calvinists) at the 1597 cavalry Battle of Turnhout, in their decades-long war for national independence against Catholic Spain.
Turnhout was the first time the Dutch had defeated the Spanish in an open-field battle. John Lothrop Motley, in his 1860 masterpiece History of the United Netherlands, 1597-98 explained the significance of Turnhout:
The true and abiding interest of the battle is derived from is moral effect, from its influence on the people of the Netherlands. And this could scarcely be exaggerated. The nation was electrified, transformed in an instant. Who now should henceforth dare to say that one Spanish fighting-man was equal to five or ten Hollanders? At last the days of Jemmingen and Mooker-heath needed no longer to be remembered by every patriot with a shudder of shame. Here at least in the open field a Spanish army, after in vain refusing a combat and endeavouring to escape, had literally bitten the dust before one fourth of its own number. And this effect was a permanent one. Thenceforth for foreign powers to talk of mediation between the republic and the ancient master, to suggest schemes of reconciliation and of a return to obedience, was to offer gratuitous and trivial insult, and we shall very soon have occasion to mark the simple eloquence with which the thirty-eight Spanish standards of Turnhout, hung up in the old hall of the Hague, were made to reply to the pompous rhetoric of an interfering ambassador.
Because the Dutch won the war, they were able to build in the 17th century the first nation in the modern world which practiced religious tolerance. The religious freedom which we enjoy today in the United States was won for us, in part, by the brave cavalrymen of Prince Maurice's army who risked (and, in some cases, lost) their lives against the larger Spanish force.
Like Passover, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the debts of thanks we owe to previous generations which fought (in various ways, including literally) for freedom, and, especially, to God for leading them in their fight. Thanksgiving is also an especially appropriate time to reflect on our own contemporary obligations to ensure that the sacred light of religious freedom is never extinguished, neither by Islamist terrorists, nor by persons who would decimate the First Amendment's guarantee of Free Exercise of Religion by declaring it to mean nothing more than what goes on inside a church.
"We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing,
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name - He forgets not His own.
Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine,
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, all glory be Thine.
We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader in battle,
And pray that Thou still our defender wilt be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation!
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!"