Throughout this year, I will be spending time reflecting upon various hymns. We may not think about hymns as a way that we teach and pass on the faith, but the reality is that many of us can remember hymns a lot easier than memorizing scripture.
The Baptism of Our Lord Sunday is on January 8th this year. On this day we hear of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. As I think about Jesus’ baptism and baptism in general, one of the hymns that comes to my mind is ‘Shall We Gather at the River.’ While it is not specifically a baptism hymn, the notion of gathering with the saints at the river does conjure up images of baptism.
‘Shall We Gather at the River’ (sometimes called ‘Beautiful River’) was written by Robert Lowry (1826-1899). He was a popular Baptist pastor serving various congregations throughout the East. In later life he became interested in writing and publishing gospel hymns. In addition to ‘Shall we Gather at the River’ he is also well-known for his hymn ‘Nothing But the Blood.’
The story behind writing this hymn is that it was written on a sultry afternoon in July, 1864, when Robert Lowry was pastor of the Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, NY. 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 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 life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.’
As he mused, the words began to construct themselves. What came first was 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 for he sprang up, sat down at his organ, played the tune through, and sang the first stanza. Then he wrote it out. (adapted from Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns by Henry Burrage, 1888)
In many ways, the imagery that was part of Lowry’s vision seems to come from Revelation 22:1-6. In this passage, John details his vision while on the Island of Patmos, about the river of the water of life which is bright as crystal and flows from the throne of God. It is at this river where on each side is the tree of life with its fruit and the leaves which are for the healing of the nation. It also has the servants worshipping God and the Lamb as they encounter God’s face.
For me, as I sing this hymn it calls me to be mindful of gathering together with others (the saints) in the knowledge that God provides the marvelous water of baptism that claims us and reminds us that we are God’s. And that when we gather, we are in the presence of God always.