Scripture Verse

A pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Revelation 22:1–2

Introduction

portrait
Robert Lowry
1826–1899

Words: Ro­bert Low­ry, 1864. First pub­lished in Hap­py Voic­es (New York: Am­er­ican Tract So­cie­ty, 1865), num­ber 220.

Music: Han­son Place Ro­bert Low­ry, 1864 (🔊 pdf nwc).

Alternate Tune:

  • Enfield (Bede) Vic­tor Bede, in The Hym­nal Com­pan­ion to the Book of Com­mon Pray­er, ed­it­ed by Charles Vin­cent & D. J. Wood, third edi­tion (Lon­don: Samp­son Low & Mar­ston, 1890), num­ber 510 (🔊 pdf nwc)

Origin of the Hymn

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 the ri­ver of death and so lit­tle about the pure 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.

Robert Lowry

Stories of the Hymn’s Use

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 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 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 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, 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

The year af­ter [this song] was writ­ten, on Child­ren’s Day, in Brook­lyn [New York], when the as­sem­bled Sun­day-schools of the city met in be­wil­der­ing ar­ray, this song was sung by more than for­ty thou­sand voices. There was not a child from the gut­ter or a mis­sion waif who did not know it.


An Am­er­ican la­dy writ­ing from Cai­ro, who was al­lowed to vi­sit the mi­li­ta­ry hos­pi­tal soon af­ter some wound­ed men had been brought in from a skir­mish, says: “The three hours we could stay were full of work for heart and hand.

“One young sol­dier from a High­land re­gi­ment es­pe­cial­ly ex­cit­ed my in­ter­est. He had lost a limb, and the doc­tor said he could not live through the night.

“I stopped at his side to see whe­ther there was any­thing that I could do for him. He lay with closed eyes; and as his lips moved I caught the words, ‘Mo­ther, mo­ther.’ I dipped my hand­kerc­hief in a ba­sin of iced wa­ter, and bathed his fore­head where the fe­ver flush­es burned.

“‘Oh, that is good!’ he said, op­en­ing his eyes. See­ing me bend­ing ov­er him, he caught my hand and kissed it. ‘Thank you, la­dy,’ he said; ‘it ’minds me o’ mo­ther.’

“I asked him if I could write to his mo­ther. ‘No,’ he said; the sur­geon had pro­mised to write; but could I, would I, sing to him? I hes­i­tat­ed a mo­ment, and looked around. The gleam on the yel­low wa­ter of the Nile, as the west­ern rays slant­ed down, caught my eye and sug­gest­ed the ri­ver the streams of which shall make glad the ci­ty of God.

“I be­gan to sing in a low voice the gos­pel hymn, ‘Shall we ga­ther at the ri­ver?’ Ea­ger heads were raised around us to list­en more in­tent­ly, while bass and ten­or voic­es, weak and trem­u­lous, came in on the chor­us,—

‘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.’

“When the song was end­ed, I looked in­to the face of the boy—for he was not ov­er twen­ty—and asked, ‘Shall you be there?’

“‘Yes, I’ll be there, through what the Lord Je­sus has done for me,’ he an­swered, with his blue eyes shin­ing, while a ‘light that ne­ver was on sea or land’ ir­ra­di­at­ed his face.

“The tears ga­thered in my eyes as I thought of the mo­ther, in her far-off Scot­tish home, watch­ing and wait­ing for tid­ings of her sol­dier boy, who was breath­ing away his life in an Egypt­ian hos­pi­tal.

Come again, la­dy, come again, I heard on all sides as we left the bar­racks. I shall go; but I shall not find my Scot­tish lad­die, for by to-mor­row’s re­veille he will have crossed the ri­ver.

Sankey, pp. 133–35

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.

Lyrics

Shall we ga­ther at the ri­ver,
Where bright an­gel feet have trod,
With its crys­tal tide for­ev­er
Flowing by the throne of God?

Refrain

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.

Refrain

Ere we reach the shin­ing ri­ver,
Lay we ev­ery bur­den down;
Grace our spi­rits will de­liv­er,
And pro­vide a robe and crown.

Refrain

At the smil­ing of the ri­ver,
Mirror of the Sav­ior’s face,
Saints, whom death will ne­ver sev­er,
Lift their songs of sav­ing grace.

Refrain

Soon we’ll reach the sil­ver ri­ver,
Soon our pil­grim­age will cease;
Soon our hap­py hearts will quiv­er
With the me­lo­dy of peace.

Refrain