Shall We Gather At The River?

While many of us may not recognize the name, Reverend Robert Lowry—it is highly probable that most of us are familiar with at least two of his hymns. This nineteenth century minister composed over 500 hymns, including ‘Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus’ & ‘Shall We Gather At The River?’

‘Shall We Gather At The River’ was written 155 years ago:

Rev. Robert Lowry, DD., (the author) was born in Philadelphia, Penn., March 12, 1826. Rev. Lowry died at age 73, on Nov. 25, 1899¹

At the age of seventeen years he became a disciple of Christ, and although his parents were members of the Associate Presbyterian church, his study of the Scriptures led him to cast in his lot with the Baptists, and having been baptized by Rev. Geo. B. Ide, DD., he united with the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

At once he devoted himself to Christian work, especially in connection with Sunday-schools. The desire to consecrate his life to Christ’s cause, gradually took possession of him, and at length his pastor drew from him the confession that his thoughts had been directed to the work of the Christian ministry.

For, successful as Dr. Lowry has been as a pastor and preacher, multitudes know him better as a writer of hymns and composer of sacred music. On the death of William B. Bradbury, (‘composer’ of Jesus Loves Me and author of ‘Just as I Am‘) the music publishing business which he had built up in New York was continued by Biglow & Main. The new firm made a proposal to Dr. Lowry to prepare a book for use in Sunday-schools. At first Dr. Lowry shrank from the undertaking, fearing that it would interfere with his ministerial duties. He was at length, however, induced to enter upon the preparation of the proposed book.

Dr. Lowry’s fondness for music was exhibited in his earliest years. As a child, he amused himself with the various musical instruments that came into his hands. A love of melody was thus developed. When the obligations of musical editorship were laid upon him, he gave himself to the study of the best musical textbooks, and the highest forms of musical composition.

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 to 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.”

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Revelation 22:1

As he mused, the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry, “Shall we gather?” Then they 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 the song had formulated itself, the author sprang up, sat down at his organ, played the tune through, and sang the first stanza and the chorus. Then he wrote it out. In that same year Dr. Lowry was asked for some contributions to a song-book, which the American Tract Society was about to publish. He gave the editor some manuscripts, and subsequently added “Shall we gather.” In the following spring, the Brooklyn Sunday School Union asked permission to use it for the May anniversary.

Forty thousand children sang it on parade, and in their churches. Then it went everywhere. It was sung in conventions, in churches, in Sunday-schools, and at the bedside of the dying. It crossed the ocean, and became known in Great Britain and on the continent. At some of the most distant missionary stations in Asia it was translated and sung. It found its way to the Sandwich Islands, and soon encircled the globe. It is probably the one hymn by which its author is best known.

A meeting not long ago was held in the Mission Hall in Salmon’s Lane, Limehouse, London, to greet Lady Colin Campbell, who has shown in various ways her sympathy with the poor of the East End. The exercises consisted of cheers of welcome, prayer, singing and remarks by Walter Austin, the founder of the mission. The Pall Mall Gazette says: “But what every one was waiting for was to hear Lady Colin sing Shall We Gather At The River, which she did with a refinement of tone and feeling that seemed to pass into the worn faces looking up into hers.”

As a prelude to the Robert Raikes centennial in London, in 1880, the Sunday-school Union gave a reception to the delegates. Distinguished men from all parts of the world addressed the meeting. After the last of the appointed speakers had left the platform, the chairman, Sir Charles Reed, MP., rose and said: “I am told that the author of Shall we gather at the river is in the room. We should all like to hear him.”

Making his way from the rear seats, Dr. Lowry advanced to the platform, where he was welcomed by the chairman, and introduced to the audience. The reception was so enthusiastic that for some minutes it was impossible for him to speak.

The Presbyterian, reporting this episode, says: “It was a suitable recognition due to such a man, and a spontaneous testimony to the value of a song which doubtless the delegates present had made a household word.”—Quoted from the book titled ‘Baptist Hymn Writers & Their Hymns’ By Henry S. Burrage, DD.; 1888. *Buddy Greene – Shall We Gather At the River; Gaither Vocal Band; There Is a River; Gaither Vocal Band