Shall we gather at the river

with HANSON PLACE

 

Origins. Robert Lowry (1826–1899) provided this story behind “Shall we gather at the river,” which appeared posthumously in Ira Sankey’s My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns (Philadelphia: Sunday School Times, 1906):

On a sultry afternoon in July, 1864, Dr. Lowry was sitting at his study table in Elliott Place, Brooklyn, when the words of the hymn, “Shall we gather at the river?" came to him. He recorded them hastily, and then sat down before his parlor organ and composed the tune which is now sung in all the Sunday-schools of the world. In speaking of the song, Dr. 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 on several occasions I have been deeply moved by the singing of this very hymn. Going from Harrisburg to Lewisburg once, I got into a car filled with half-drunken lumbermen. Suddenly one of them struck up, “Shall 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 the hymn.

A different appreciation of it was evinced during the Robert Raikes centennial [1880]. I was in London, and had gone to a meeting in the Old Bailey to see some of the most famous Sunday-school workers of 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 of “Shall 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, after it was over, that I had perhaps done some little good in the world” (pp. 132-133).

Henry Burrage, in his Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns (Portland, Maine: Brown Thurston & Co., 1888), provided this more detailed account 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 (pp. 430-431).

Burrage’s account seems to be paraphrased from an older, first-person account, repeated in many other sources without citation.

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 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. The tune was dubbed HANSON PLACE, named after Lowry’s church, by the editors of the Baptist Hymnal (1956).

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
17 July 2018
rev. 23 January 2019


Related Resources:

John Julian, “Robert Lowry,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 699-700: Google Books

William J. Reynolds, “Shall we gather at the river,” Hymns of Our Faith (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1964), p. 176.

Carlton R. Young, “Shall we gather at the river,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 592-593.

Carl P. Daw Jr., “Shall we gather at the river,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 382-383.

“Shall we gather at the river” at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/shall_we_gather_at_the_river

J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “Shall we gather at the river,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/shall-we-gather-at-the-river