Think of the main dish on the menu for Thanksgiving. You probably thought of turkey. Think of a hymn about Thanksgiving. You probably thought of We Gather Together. Did you know that the words “thanks” and “thanksgiving” do not appear in the hymn? Although it is a song of praise for the blessings God gives, it certainly wasn’t written about the American Thanksgiving holiday. The hymn is actually much older than the holiday we celebrate each November.
Here’s a little Dutch history for you. Back in the mid-1500s, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and his son, the King of Spain, Phillip II, were determined to wipe Protestantism out of the lands they ruled. When a few Dutch Protestants rebelled by destroying some Catholic statues, the King responded by sending the Duke of Alba to restore order. The Duke’s solution was to order the execution of those who rebelled along with those who helped the rebels. It should not be a surprise to learn that the response to the executions was more rebellion. Likewise, it should not be a surprise that the Duke’s response to the rebellions was more executions. It was a vicious little circle.
Heavy taxes and other issues resulted in one big, chaotic mess. Thousands of citizens of Antwerp were executed or fled into exile. Peace did not return to the Netherlands until Spain’s military strength declined near the end of the century.
Dutch author Adrianus Valerius wrote the poem “We Gather Together” (probably in 1597) in response to the troubled past with a look to a brighter future. The opening words, which give the poem its name, are a clear reminder of the time when they were forbidden to gather for worship.
The poem first appeared in print in 1620s in a collection of Dutch patriotic songs, “Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck.” In 1877, Edward Kremser discovered it, translated it into Latin, and published it in Vienna. The tune usually associated with this hymn is based on a Dutch folk song, and is named KREMSER in his honor. The 1894 English text, by Theodore Baker, is not an exact translation of the original text, but still retains much of the original Dutch defiance.
We Gather Together first appeared in an American hymnal in 1903. It was the first hymn selected by the Dutch Reformed Church when, in 1937, they began singing hymns along with traditional psalms in their worship services. During World Wars I and II, Americans embraced the hymn as they could relate their fight for freedom from oppression.
The Pilgrims responsible for the traditional first Thanksgiving were escaping religious persecution. As we sit down to our turkey dinners and give thanks for all that has been given us, let us also give thanks for the freedom we enjoy to gather and to worship.
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!