Shall we gather at the river



Text and Tune. Henry Burrage, in his Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns (1888), provided this lengthy story of how the hymn was written:

The hymn “Shall we gather at the river” was written one afternoon in July, 1864, when Dr. Lowry was pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, N.Y. The weather was oppressively hot, and the author was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion. He was almost incapable of bodily exertion, and his imagination began to take itself wings. Visions of the future passed before him with startling vividness. The imagery of the Apocalypse took the form of tableaux. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river, and the gathering of the saints. While he was thus breathing heavily in the sultry atmosphere of that July day, his soul seemed to take new life from that celestial outlook. He began to wonder why the hymn-writers had said so much about “the river of death,” and so little about “the pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”

As he mused, the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question, of Christian inquiry, “Shall we gather?” Then thy broke out in chorus, as an answer of Christian faith, “Yes, we’ll gather.” On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn. The author never has been able to tell which had priority of birth. They are twins. When song had formulated itself, the author sprang up, sat down as his organ, played the tune through, and sang the first stanza and the chorus. Then he wrote it out.

How much of this is Robert Lowry’s own telling and how much is Burrage’s narrative liberty is difficult to tell, but the basic facts are true. Lowry was pastor of Hanson Place at the time, and the tune for this hymn, later dubbed HANSON PLACE, is an homage to the church. The hymn text draws largely from the quoted passage of Revelation 22:1, and it uses a question-and-answer format between the stanzas and the chorus. Lowry may have also been inspired by another gospel hymn on a similar theme, “Shall we meet beyond the river” by Horace Hastings (1831-1899), penned in 1858.

Shortly after writing the hymn, Lowry included it in a set of hymns requested by the American Tract Society, for their publication Happy Voices (1865 | Fig. 1). This first printing contained five stanzas.


Fig. 1. Happy Voices (American Tract Society, 1865).


The following year, this hymn appeared in William Bradbury’s The New Golden Shower (1866 | Fig. 2) with an additional stanza, inserted as number 3, and a revised harmonization.


Fig. 2. William Bradbury, The New Golden Shower (1866).


In modern collections, the hymn is usually reduced to three or four stanzas. A moderate-to-slow tempo will aid the sense of grandeur and wonder.

for Hymnology Archive
17 July 2018

Related Resources:

“Shall we gather at the river” at