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History of Hymns: "We Gather Together"

"We Gather Together"
17th-century Dutch, translated by Theodore Baker
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 131

C. Michael Hawn

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.

In many American hymnals, "We gather together" appears as a Thanksgiving hymn. Perhaps this is because of the opening line and the general idea that God is with us regardless of our circumstances. However, the hymn speaks more about God's providence throughout the trials of life. The story behind this hymn clarifies its text.

This hymn is a late sixteenth-century expression of celebration of freedom by The Netherlands from Spanish oppression. Like many older hymns, it finds its way to us through a circuitous route. Although listed as an anonymous hymn, some sources indicate that Adrianus Valerious (c. 1575-1625), known for his poems on the Dutch War of Independence from the perspective of a peasant, authored the original text in Dutch. Since making a living as a poet was not possible, Valerious had a prosperous career as the Toll and Customs Controller for Veere, eventually being promoted to Tax Collections and finally appointed to the City Council.

The hymn was first published in Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck (1626), a collection by Valerius in Haarlem, focusing on folk poems and melodies on the Dutch Wars (1555-1625). Valerius collected and arranged the songs for this publication for 30 years until his death in 1625. This collection is not as important for its poetry as it was for understanding the Protestant attitudes of the day. The work’s significance was exemplified by its adoption in Zeeland as part of the religious education curriculum in homes and the church.

Austrian Edward Kremser (1838-1914) included the hymn in Sechs Altniederländische Volkslieder (Six Old Netherlands Folksongs) in 1877 for his men's chorus, all six anonymous songs taken from the Valerius collection 250 years earlier. According to UM Hymnal editor te Rev. Carlton Young, the performance of these tunes led to their popularity and inclusion in many hymnals.

The story extends to the United States through Theodore Baker (1851-1934), a New York-born musicologist who studied in Leipzig and authored the famous Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Baker translated the hymn from German for an anthem entitled "Prayer for Thanksgiving" published in 1894. Baker is the source of the hymn’s traditional Thanksgiving connection in the United States.

The Dutch, long a stronghold for the Reformed theology of John Calvin, were in a struggle against Spain for their political independence and against the Catholic Church for religious freedom. A twelve-year truce was established in 1609, giving young Prince Frederick Henry a chance to mature into an able politician and soldier.

During this time, the Dutch East India Company extended its trade beyond that of the English. The high period of Dutch art flourished with Hals, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. Under the guidance of the Prince Frederick Henry’s leadership, Spain’s efforts to regain supremacy on land and sea were finally overcome in 1648. There was indeed much for which to be thankful.

Some of the political overtones in this hymn faithfully translated by Baker are apparent. Hymnologist Albert Bailey suggests that the phrase, "The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing," is an allusion to the persecution of the Catholic Church under the policies of Spain. Thousands had been massacred and hundreds of homes burned by the Spanish in 1576 during the Siege of Antwerp.

In stanza two, the writer states, "so from the beginning the fight we were winning," stressing that Protestants had always been assured of winning the cause. The truce of 1609 proved that the Lord "wast at our side."

The final stanza is a series of petitions . . .

" ...pray that thou still our defender will be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!"

This is an eschatological stanza. The ultimate battle has not been won and will not be won until all battles cease.

The hymn gained recognition in the United States when it found its way into the hymnal of the Methodist-Episcopal Church in 1935. The popularity increased during World War II when singers connected "the wicked oppressing" to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. More recently, the "We Gather Together" was featured at the Funeral Mass for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994.

An interesting sidebar was that Baker’s anthem inspired another hymn. A young Julia Cady Cory (1882-1963) heard this text in 1902 at her church, Brick Presbyterian in New York City. Cory’s "We praise thee, O God, our Redeemer, Creator" is a more general hymn of praise and thanksgiving that also uses the Dutch tune KREMSER. Cory’s hymn did not include any reference to nationalism, making it a more general ecumenical hymn of thanksgiving.

The United Methodist Hymnal has placed this hymn in the "Providence" section rather with other traditional American Thanksgiving hymns, broadening its use from this national holiday to use during any difficult circumstances.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.