History of Hymns: Apocalyptic vision leads to famous 19th-century hymn
“Shall We Gather at the River”
UM Hymnal, No. 723
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.
Robert Lowry (1826-1899) has provided us with one of the most venerable 19th-century texts and tunes from the United States. The original hymn, titled “Mutual Recognition in the Hereafter,” appeared in Happy Voices (1865).
The primary images of the text are drawn from Revelation 22:1-2: “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 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Lowry describes the genesis of the hymn in his own 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. . . . 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. . . . 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 in chorus, ‘Yes, we’ll gather.’ On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn.”
The Philadelphia-born author and composer of this hymn was a popular Baptist preacher and educator who served churches in West Chester, Pa., New York City and Plainfield, N.J. Lowry was a graduate of the University at Lewisburg in Pennsylvania (now Bucknell University). He later taught as a professor of belles-lettres there, and received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the university in 1875. He became known for his gospel songs while ministering in Brooklyn, collaborating often with William H. Doane in producing some of the most popular Sunday school song collections of his day.
In many ways, “At the River” has become an icon of the 19th-century gospel song. The hymn has appeared in many movies, but none more appropriately than the 1985 Academy Award winning film, The Trip to Bountiful. Two famous American composers arranged this hymn, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, the latter including it in his solo-song collection, Old American Songs (1952). The United States Army Chorus sang it at the funeral of Associate Justice William O. Douglas in National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., in 1980.
The original fourth stanza, omitted from most hymnals, appeals to both the visual and aural senses:
At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.
While perhaps more associated with funerals, the hymn takes on other possibilities in different cultural contexts. In rural communities throughout the Southern United States, where white and black congregations practice baptism by immersion in a lake or river, “At the River” has often been associated with the sacrament of baptism. Congregations meet by a riverbank and sing this song as they gather at the water. The biblical precedent of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River enriches this ritual.
While the text does not explicitly point to baptism, the image of water in the text juxtaposed with the symbolism of dying (being immersed in the water) and rising with Christ “in newness of life” is entirely congruent with the hope for a future life with Christ on the “shining river” (stanzas three and four) that “flows by the throne of God.”