Words: Robert Lowry, 1864. First published in Happy Voices, 1865, number 220.
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 theriver of deathand so little about thepure 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.
Shall We Gather at the River is perhaps, without question, the most popular of his songs. Of this Mr. Lowry said: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.Yet he tells us how, on several occasions, he had been deeply moved by the singing of that hymn.
Going from Harrisburg [Pennsylvania] to Lewisburg once I got into a [train] car filled with half-drunken lumbermen. Suddenly one of them struck upShall We Gather at the River?and they sang it over and over again, repeating the chorus in a wild, boisterous way.
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.
A different appreciation of it was evinced during the Robert Rakes’ Centennial. I was in London, and had gone to meeting in the Old Bailey to see some of the most famous Sunday school workers in the world. They were present from Europe, Asia, and America. I sat in a rear seat alone.
After there had been a number of addresses delivered in various languages, I was preparing to leave, when the chairman of the meeting announced that the author ofShall We Gather at the River?was present, and I was requested by name to come forward.
Men applauded and women waved their handkerchiefs as I went to the platform. It was a tribute to the hymn; but 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.
Hall, pp. 74–75
Part of this hymn was sung in the 1985 Academy Award winning movie, Trip to Bountiful. It was also sung at the 1980 funeral of American Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
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 talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.
Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.
At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.
Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.