SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER was written by Robert Lowry, to comfort his congregation one long, hot summer.
By all accounts, the summer of 1864 was almost as bad as the one before. The Civil War was tearing the nation apart, littering its fields with dead boys. Families waited anxiously for news from the battlefront.
During the “Draft Riots” of the previous summer, Confederate sympathizers in NYC had ransacked the homes of abolitionists and free blacks and burned down two Protestant churches and the Colored Orphan Asylum in the heart of Manhattan. By 1864, the city was allied with the Union cause, but suffering and worry continued.
It was a summer of oppressive heat and humidity. Victorian era fabrics were heavy. Air conditioning had not been invented. Crowded city apartments were stifling.
When the people thought it couldn’t get worse, fever swept the city, confining hundreds to sickbeds. It was a summer of high anxiety and relentless misery.
THE BEAUTIFUL RIVER
That summer, Rev. Lowry (1826-1899), not yet forty but known for his brilliant sermons, was the pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church. He worried over his parishioners. What could he do to lift their spirits?
One evening, after a grim, exhausting day of visiting the sick and dying in Brooklyn, he meditated on Revelation 22:1, “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life…”
The verse seemed to Lowry a promise that friends and loved ones would be reunited again one day at “the beautiful river.” In minutes, he wrote about laying down our burdens and singing a melody of peace. That same evening, he sat at his parlor organ and fashioned an exuberant marching rhythm and a reassuring chorus proclaiming, “Yes! We’ll gather at the river …”
Lowry’s hymn was published one year later in a Sunday School hymnbook, Happy Voices. It was sung so often at baptisms, funerals, and camp meetings that Aaron Copland included it in his second set of “Old American Songs” (1952), treating it as a folksong.
SUMMERTIME AND THE LIVIN’ IS …
not easy in the 21st century. History seems to be repeating itself.
It’s hot. Parts of the nation are parched, desperate for rain, fighting walls of fire. We worry about the water supply and climate change.
We’re surprised by illness, our own and the earth’s. In the Bronx this summer, bacteria festering in water-cooling towers caused an outbreak of deadly Legionnaires’ Disease. In Colorado, a river turned mustard yellow from toxic waste and made us all sick just looking at it.
Racial strife still dominates our headlines and plagues the nation. This summer is as tense as last, only now we have a list of new names to add to Michael Brown’s, whose young body was left to bake in a Ferguson street for over four hours last year. But this summer, too, there’s new hope, though anxiety remains high and the suffering relentless. The thriving antiracism movement, with its chant of “Black Lives Matter,” draws thousands of all races to work together for change and, thanks to activists like Bree Newsome, Confederate flags are coming down at last.
Though divided, we’re not in the middle of a Civil War, but there is still war and talk of more war. Families struggle and worry, while the US impoverishes itself on a yearly military budget of $610 billion, down from its peak of $720 billion, but still far outspending all other nations.
LOWRY’S INVITATION STILL COMFORTS
Fanning ourselves, but wearing the lightweight summer fabrics possible in the 21st century, we gather to sing of a river of life, of beauty and remembrance, of loved ones and community, and melodies of peace. We hear in the words of this “old favorite” Lowry’s invitation and a Biblical reminder: we’re in this together.
Do we imagine God’s throne in some far off heaven? Or could it be that the throne is that spark of the sacred we discover at the core of our own beings and that the beautiful river is the current of divine energy that connects us to each other and to all life?
Recognizing the beautiful river, we sing Yes! We’ll gather at the river. Yes!
TO GO DEEPER
Four very different presentations of the hymn:
“Cello and Piano Duo,” hymn arrangement by Bill Wolaver
“At the River” (Aaron Copland), soloist Will Hammons