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

Nov 26th, 2011 | 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,” is actually of Dutch origin and speaks of religious persecution that predates the first Thanksgiving.  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 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.

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.  It is a nation with severe problems and challenges.  But it is 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 rights and liberties that go with that freedom.  But it also can mean spiritual freedom; that is freedom from the bondage to sin and the freedom to now serve the risen Lord.  “O, Lord make us free!”

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

One Comment to ““We Gather Together”: A Thanksgiving Hymn in Historical Perspective”

  1. Thankful says:

    Thanks for posting this history of a favorite and famous hymn. We often neglect to investigate the circumstances and contemporary meaning of a particular hymn and miss out on some of the blessing that hymns like this one offer us.

    Extrapolating a little, had William of Orange not led the Dutch to thow off King Phillip II’s rule, there would not have been a safe haven for English, Welsh, and Scottish Protestants in which to flee when persecutions under the Roman Catholic and Anglican national leadership became too hot. There was a place for those English Puritans we call the Pilgrims to establish themselves in peace prior to returning to England and then making the journey to the New World. So, there would not have been a feast of thanksgiving held at the Plymouth Bay Colony had there not been victories like the one this hymn celebrates.

    Indeed, our act of “gathering together” in the name of the Lord still stands as a rememberence of times in the Lowlands, Scotland, England, and everywhere else when doing so was to take a participant’s life into his or her own hands. We just don’t know it.

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