Updated: May 3, 2020
Text: Robert Lowry (1826-1899) Tune: Robert Lowry (1826-1899)
1. Shall we gather by the river,
Where bright angels' feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God.
R/Yes, we'll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river,
Gather with the saints by the river
That flows by the throne of God.
2. On the margin of the river
Washing up its silver spray
We will talk and worship ever
All the happy, golden day.
3. Ere we reach the shining river
Lay we every burden down
Grace our spirits will deliver
And provide a robe and crown.
4. At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints whom death will never sever
Lift their songs of saving grace.
5. Soon we'll reach the shining river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease,
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.
It was the summer of 1864. The Civil War was raging. New York, always in turmoil
about the war, was suffering financial panic because of it. The political conventions
had just met. Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet were derided in the streets as jokes.
His reelection seemed unlikely. To make things worse, the last weeks of July New
York suffered a terrible heat wave. People were dying from heat strokes. Life
seemed uncertain and frightening. Pastors were having to answer tough questions
from their parishioners about what they should believe.
Robert Lowry (1826-1899), pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, and
a prolific composer of Gospel songs, was troubled by their questions. One day he sat
down at the piano, and a tune and text came to him. “Shall We Gather at the River,” a
reflection on Revelation 22:1-2. “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of
life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the
middle of the street of the city.” Lowry took these images to give his people, and
himself, hope. No matter how dark things are for us here on earth, what happens
here is not the last word. Jesus is.
The tune became one of the great American tunes of all time. The Swede Joel
Blomquist used the tune for a text inspired by the American text, but it is not a
translation. In it he imagines we are like the exiles in Babylon wondering about
singing a song of Zion. Psalm 137 expresses the feelings of the exiles as they think of
Jerusalem. Never forget: We are pilgrims here; this is not our permanent home.
Jesus is. He has gone to prepare a place for us. It shines before us in this hymn.
The Swedish version, "Å Hvor Salig at få Vandre" (it is in the Norwegian Hymnal 2013,
no 858) is here. It is sung by the Leif Strand Kammerkor in a jazz setting by some of
Sweden’s greatest jazz musicians of the past century. It was one of my very favorite
records, remember those? I brought it home from Sweden in the 1970s.
Aaron Copeland set the American text with its original tune, making it into an art
song. The song has become a major piece on the repertoire of every singer today.
Marilyn Horne’s version is breathtaking!