A Thanksgiving Song from Long Ago
With Thanksgiving, 2023 on the horizon, a sudden recall of an old hymn popped into my mind. Back in the day, my family attended a very down-to-earth and cheerful Presbyterian church in Silver Spring, Maryland. We Gather Together was always one of the three hymns sung on Sundays before Thanksgiving. You might remember it, too. I was probably aged six or seven and I loved that song. The melody was simple and the words old-time-y, (although in my older years, I consider them very profound.)
In 1961, we moved to Dayton, Ohio, and began attending an entirely different Presbyterian congregation, fancy and high-church, mainly because my dad was really taken by their music — two (!) pipe organs and paid singers in the choir. I’ll admit, I thought their music was fantastic, also. And our first Thanksgiving in Ohio, lo and behold, the fancy church sang We Gather Together ! I was so pleased. It just couldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.
Decades later, I could only remember some of the lyrics. Besides, I wondered about its origin. Where had it come from? Who wrote it? And why? Through the wonders of the internet, most questions can be answered with ease.
In the late 16th century, Spain had strict control of Holland. The Spanish King Philip II had imposed harsh edicts and one of the worst commanded that the Dutch Protestants were forbidden to gather for worship. However, Sunday services were of vital importance to the everyday Dutch person and at some point, the Hollanders had dealt with enough. They rose up and fought a war for independence, achieving a great victory against the Spanish army at the Battle of Turnhout. The Spanish packed up and left, giving the Dutch their freedom. To celebrate, an unknown Dutchman wrote a poem, thanking God for his blessing. It was titled, Wilt heden nu treden, (We Gather Together). That poem wasn’t in the public eye until 1626, when a man named Adrianus Valerius included it in a collection of Dutch folk and patriotic songs. He set the unknown author’s poem to a folk melody.
There the song sat, perhaps sung by a few Dutch, until 1877, when a German named Eduard Kremser translated the song into German and Latin. He also set the lyrics to a different melody. Seventeen years later, an American fellow named Theodore Baker aimed to give the song English lyrics. He retained Kremser’s melody, used the concepts in the original Dutch, but didn’t translate exactly. His composition first appeared in an American hymnal in 1903. It came to be sung at graduations and services celebrating centennials of towns .
During World War I, We Gather Together began to gain popularity among American Protestant churches. People started to see themselves and their nation in the lyrics. By World War II, the line, “the wicked oppressing” was understood as being the current enemies, Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. This solidified the enjoyment of We Gather Together among churches across the country and most hymnals printed in the late 1940s and the 1950s included it under the category of — you guessed it —Thanksgiving.
Nowadays, I think one would be hard pressed to hear this hymn sung in any church before the Thanksgiving holiday. It doesn’t fit with the present style of contemporary music. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m generally a fan of Christian songs, especially when they speak words of praise. But when we ignore the old hymns, we miss what they have to offer — a trove of wisdom and examples of abundant faith.
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!
hymnary.org/text/we_ gather_ together_ to_ ask_ the_ lords