“We Gather Together”: A Thanksgiving Hymn In Historical Perspective

Nov 24th, 2018 | By | Category: Christian Life, Featured Issues

This is Thanksgiving weekend and it is appropriate in this edition of Issues in Perspective, to focus on Thanksgiving.  To that end, I want to concentrate on the Thanksgiving hymn, “We Gather Together.”  Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal offers an instructive history about this traditional hymn.  The hymn, “We Gather Together” (“Wilt heden nu treden”), is actually of Dutch origin and speaks of religious persecution that predates the first Thanksgiving in America.  The melody can be traced back to 1597.  It began as a folk song but was transformed into a hymn dealing with overcoming religious persecution on 24 January 1597.   That was the date of the Battle of Turnhout, in which Prince Maurice of Orange defeated the Spanish occupiers of a town in what is now the Netherlands.  At this point, the Dutch Protestants, who were prohibited from worshiping under the Spanish king, Phillip II, celebrated the victory by borrowing the familiar folk melody and giving it new words.  “We Gather Together” connoted a heretofore forbidden act—Dutch Protestants gathering together for worship.  It first appeared in print in a 1626 collection of Dutch patriotic songs.

How did this Dutch patriotic song get from a Dutch songbook to the American hymnbook?  Dutch settlers brought the hymn with them to the New World, as early as the 1620s.  Dutch Calvinists, like most Calvinists, rarely sang anything in their church services that was not directly from the Bible.  Indeed, they normally put the Old Testament Psalms to music.  But in 1937, the Christian Reformed Church made the controversial decision to permit hymns to be sung at church and “We Gather Together” was chosen as the opening hymn of the hymnal.  Furthermore, Theodore Baker, an American scholar studying in Leipzig, where the choirmaster had published an arrangement of the hymn, translated it into English in 1894 as a thanksgiving “prayer” to be sung by a choir.   According to the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, which maintains a database of popular hymns, “We Gather Together” first appeared in an American hymnal in 1903.  Over the next three decades it appeared in an assortment of hymnals in the Northeast and the Midwest and in school songbooks.  In 1935 it was added to the national hymnal of the Methodist-Episcopal Church, then the largest denomination in the US.  According to Michael Hawn, professor of sacred music at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, “by World War I, we started to see ourselves in this hymn,” and the popularity increased during World War II, when “the wicked oppressing” were understood to include Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  It was also sung at the Opening of the Funeral Mass for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in 1994.

It is one of the most memorable of Thanksgiving hymns and fits with the American religious culture, for it ends with the fitting and uplifting conclusion, “O, Lord, make us free!”  This Thanksgiving weekend, I trust you will find time to give thanks to Almighty God for His blessings and for the fact that we live in the United States of America.  Our nation is severely divided and, in many ways, has lost its way.  Despite its wealth and prosperity, it gives every evidence of being a nation under judgment.  But it remains a nation that continues to be a beacon of freedom to the world.  The freedom of which the hymn speaks can mean political freedom, with all the rights and liberties that go with that freedom.  But it also can mean spiritual freedom; the freedom from bondage to sin and the freedom to now serve the risen Lord.  For those of us who know Christ, that freedom points to the cross and the resurrection.  So, we can continue to declare, “O, Lord make us free!”

See Melanie Kirkpatrick’s intriguing history of the hymn in the Wall Street Journal (19-20 November 2005).

Theodore Baker, 1894

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!

We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

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