Shall we gather at the river?

Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod;
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain:
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.

This beloved hymn comes from the 19th century revival movement in America, and was written by Robert Lowry, a Baptist pastor who from his childhood had a gift for composing. Lowry began a life of ministry in the Baptist church at age 28 and pastored churches throughout the northeast. He became one of the prominent hymnwriters of his generation; though he was quoted as saying,  “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” his contribution to hymnology during the revival era cannot be understated. He set many of Fanny Crosby’s hymns to music with his gifted ear for melodies, and wrote both words and songs to several hymns we still sing today.

This hymn, “Shall We Gather At the River?” is Lowry’s most well-known and well-loved hymn. Though often sung at baptisms, he originally wrote it as a reflection on Revelation 22:1:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…

The story of the hymn’s writing, in Lowry’s words:

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 felt almost incapable of bodily exertion, and my imagination began to take 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 a chorus, “Yes, we’ll gather.” On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn.

Later in his life, Lowry said of his most popular hymn, “It is brass band music, has a march movement, and for that reason has become popular, though for myself I do not think much of it.” But he never lost sight of the power that hymns have for sharing the light of Jesus with those who don’t know Him. After hearing some inebriated lumbermen singing the hymn during a boisterous, drunken carouse, Lowry said:

I did not think so much of the music then as I listened to those singers, but I did think that perhaps the spirit of the hymn, the words so flippantly uttered, might somehow survive and be carried forward into the lives of those careless men, and ultimately lift them upward to the realization of the hope expressed in my hymn.

And while attending a tribute to Sunday School workers held in London, he was recognized and the assembly sang his hymn; Lowry’s response was, “I felt, when it was over, that, after all, I had perhaps done some little good in the world, and I felt more than ever content to die when God called.”

This hymn still ought to be sung in the context in which it was originally written, Revelation 22:1, and the joy we have in the river of the water of life, but it has been for so many years a cherished hymn during the joyful celebration of baptism that the hymn truly has two authentic contexts for the church today. And these two contexts are not unrelated; indeed, baptism in the water of the Spirit opens the doors to that heavenly river. Here are the remaining stanzas, from the 1991 Baptist hymnal:

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will walk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.

Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we ev’ry burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.

Soon we’ll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.

Two of my other favorite hymns by Robert Lowry are “Low In The Grave He Lay”, UMH #322, and one of my absolute favorite hymns by any composer, one that is not in the 1989 Methodist Hymnal: “How Can I Keep from Singing?”

Lowry’s hymns are universally melodic and easy to sing, with enjoyable tunes that catch in your ear– he truly had a gift for tune writing, saying, “My brain is a sort of spinning machine, I think, for there is music running through it all the time.” And he paired his melodies with theologically solid, scriptural texts, which were often jotted down simultaneously with the melodies.

Hymnwriters such as Lowry, whose works have integrity in both the theology and the music, are such a blessing to the Christian community, and I encourage you to seek out more of Lowry’s hymns and sing them with your congregations.

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