Hymn: a song of praise to God. It seems simple, but have you ever read the stories behind the beloved lyrics of your favorite classic hymns?
Each month in 2022 we are sharing the story behind one of our favorite classic hymns. We hope these stories will encourage you and help you worship, just like the hymnist, amid hurt, hope, fear, thanksgiving, joy, or loss.
This month we’re sharing the story behind Shall We Gather at the River.
Robert Lowry, a prominent Baptist Minister, wrote the text and tune of this Hymn. It was first published in Happy Voices (New York, 1865), a Sunday School collection compiled by Lowry and William H. Doane. Not many years afterward Samuel Duffield claimed the hymn “is now familiar to all Sunday School children throughout the world.”
Reynolds relates Lowry’s account of the writing of this hymn:
“One afternoon in July, 1864, when I was pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, the weather was oppressively hot, and I was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion. I was almost incapable of bodily exertion, and my imagination began to take to itself wings. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness. The imagery of the apocalypse took the form of a tableau. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river and the gathering of the saints. My soul seemed to take new life from that celestial outlook. I began to wonder why the hymn writers had said so much about the ‘river of death’ and so little about the ‘pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and the Lamb.’ As I mused the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry. ‘Shall we gather?’ Then they broke out in chorus, as an answer of Christian faith, ‘Yes, we’ll gather .’ On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn. (1964, 176).
Aaron Copland’s arrangement for solo voice (Old American Songs, Second Set, 1954) has brought the hymn to the attention of serious vocal students and recital and concert audiences.
HANSON PLACE was the name given this tune by the 1956 Baptist Hymnal committee in recognition of the church Lowry was serving when he wrote the text and tune.
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod;
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?
Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.
On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will walk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day. [Refrain]
Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we ev’ry burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown. [Refrain]
Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace. [Refrain]
This story was included in Handbook to The Baptist Hymnal.