Shall We Gather At the River

Multi-talented Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a professor of literature, a Baptist and a music editor at Biglow Publishing Company.  Dr. Lowry once said, “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” yet he wrote nearly 500 hymns and gospel songs, including Shall We Gather At the River?I Need Thee Every Hour, Low in the Grave He Lay, and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.
The tune is named HANSON PLACE in reference to the Hanson Place Baptist Church Lowry was serving when he wrote this hymn.  The text refers to the scripture passage that says,  “Then the angel showed me the river of life, as clear as crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lord…” (Revelation 22:1)

Lowry described the writing of the hymn this way:

“One af­ter­noon in Ju­ly, 1864, when I was pas­tor at Han­son Place Bap­tist Church, Brook­lyn, the wea­ther was op­press­ive­ly hot, and I was ly­ing on a lounge in a state of phys­ic­al ex­haust­ion…My imag­in­a­tion be­gan to take it­self wings. Vi­sions of the fu­ture passed be­fore me with start­ling vi­vid­ness. The im­ag­ery of the apoc­a­lypse took the form of a ta­bleau. Bright­est of all were the throne, the heav­en­ly ri­ver, and the ga­ther­ing of the saints…I be­gan to won­der why the hymn writ­ers had said so much about the ‘riv­er of death’ and so lit­tle about the ‘pure wa­ter of life, clear as crys­tal, pro­ceed­ing out of the throne of God and the Lamb.’ As I mused, the words be­gan to con­struct them­selves. They came first as a quest­ion of Christ­ian in­quiry, ‘Shall we ga­ther?’ Then they broke in chor­us, “Yes, we’ll ga­ther.” On this quest­ion and an­swer the hymn de­vel­oped it­self. The mu­sic came with the hymn.”

Shall We Gather at the River
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.


Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.


At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.


Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.


Children of the Heavenly Father

Here’s what we know:  The author of the hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father”, was Karolina Sindell-Berg (1823-1903).  She was Swedish, small and sickly as a child, and very close to her Lutheran pastor father.  With 650 of her 2,000 hymns appearing in print, she is sometimes called the Fanny Crosby of Sweden.  Among her best known hymns are “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “Day by Day.” Swedish singing star Jenny Lind provided the front money for the first printing of Sindell-Berg’s hymns.

Karolina Sandell-Berg

Karolina Sindell-Berg (1823-1903)

Here’s what we don’t know:  There are multiple possibilities of what prompted Sindell-Berg to write the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.”  One version has it that when she was 26 years old, she and her father were boat passengers of an ill-fated lake crossing. Her father fell overboard and she saw his drowning.  The English translator of the hymn, Ernst William Olson, thought this was the case when he titled the hymn “A Hymn Born of a Broken Heart.”

Another possibility is that she wrote the hymn earlier, possibly in her late teens, as a response to the turbulent conditions in Europe.  The first version of her hymn made no mention of children, only faithful Christians throughout history.  The stanzas we see in print today are not all the stanzas Sindell-Berg wrote. One of the omitted stanzas seems to suggest the political unrest of the time:

Praise the Lord in joyful numbers:
Your Protector never slumbers.
At the will of your Defender
Every foeman must surrender.

It was the translator that changed the text to include children, and it has been a song for and about children ever since.

We don’t know who composed the tune TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA.  It is sometimes said to be a Swedish folk song, but is also known to have been sung as a German folk song.  It is sometimes attributed to Oskar Ahnfelt, a Swedish musician and hymn writer.  Other times (and probably most likely), Ahnfelt is credited with simply setting the hymn to the folk song.

Here’s what matters:  A simple tune, a lovely poem and poetically graceful translation have come together to give us a song of calm assurance, protection and rest.

The hymn is a particular favorite in the many communities of the American mid-west founded by Swedes and Scandinavians.   Garrison Keillor talked about it in “Singing with the Lutherans:”

 “I once sang the bass line of ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ in a room with about 3,000 Lutherans in it, and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

The first four stanzas are the ones usually included in hymnals today.

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.

God His own doth tend and nourish;
In His holy courts they flourish;
From all evil things He spares them;
In His mighty arms He bears them.

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.

Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.

Brethren, We Have Met to Worship

Brethren, We Have Met To Worship is one of the oldest published American folk hymns. George Atkins wrote the lyrics and first published them in 1819. The traditional tune, HOLY MANNA, is a pentatonic (5 tone) melody in Ionian mode originally published by William Moore in 1829.

Brethren, we have met to worship
And adore the Lord our God;
Will you pray with all your power,
While we try to preach the Word?
All is vain unless the Spirit
Of the Holy One comes down;
Brethren, pray, and holy manna
Will be showered all around.

Do you know of churches where people gather to pray for the worship service before the service begins?  Me, too.  Now think about how many churches you know where active and deliberate prayer for the service takes place during the service.  My guess is your second list, like mine, is much shorter.

We need to pray for our preachers, for responsive listeners and souls forever changed.  We need to pray for our churches, our leaders, our friends and neighbors and visitors in the pews next to us.  We need to pray, not for programs, but for God’s will to be done in our lives.  We need to pray “with all our power”.

 It is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates His presence to people. -C. S. Lewis


Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

The eyes are the windows to the soul.  Do you believe it?  I do.  I remember the first wonderful eye contact with my children, the bonding, the joy, the somehow instantly knowing this little person.  My focus was entirely on the baby.  At that moment, nothing else existed.  I remember the last eye contact with my father.  We spoke no words but communicated volumes.  I know other people were in the room, and activity just a few feet away, but I saw nothing except my father.   Lilias Trotter and Helen Lemmel both understood the importance of where we place our focus in life, and what they shared with us has become one of the great songs of the faith.

Lilias Trotter (1853-1923) was a talented artist with a passion for missions.  After prayer and soul-searching, she left her successful art career and served God in the mission field of Algeria for the next 38 years.  She wrote several books and tracts. The following is an excerpt from her tract, Which Passion Will Prevail?

“Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen harmless worlds at once — art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the good hiding the best.  It is easy to find out whether our lives are focused, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Dare to have it out with God, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focused on Christ and His Glory.

Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.”


Helen H. Lemmel (1863-1961) was a gifted musician, concert soloist,  music teacher at the Moody Bible Institute, and music critic for the Seattle Post.  As she tells the story, in 1918, a friend gave her a copy of the tract written by Lilias Trotter.  The words made a deep impression on her and she could not get them out of her mind.  She describes the experience this way:

“Suddenly, as if commanded to stop and listen, I stood still, and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with not one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme, or note to note to make melody. The verses were written the same week, after the usual manner of composition, but none the less dictated by the Holy Spirit.”

She called the song The Heavenly Vision and first used it with a ladies choral group she directed as a regular feature in the Billy Sunday evangelical meetings.

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s a light for a look at the Savior,
And life more abundant and free!

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

We communicate with God through the eyes of our heart.  Slow down.  Focus. Look and really see what God is showing you this day.

Ring of Fire

Sometimes, all roads lead to Rome.  For me, all roads led to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  Many years ago, I was the editor of a journal for the International Association of Organ Teachers.  IAOT was having their annual convention in Valley Forge in tandem with a Home Organists Adventure, produced by Bill Worrall.  A month or so before the convention, organ artist Bill Irwin saw a book I had recently written (All About Registration), and was great encouragement to me.  He suggested that upon my arrival at the event, I should introduce myself to Bill Worrall, and offer to conduct a workshop if needed.  So, I did.   I knew I was prepared. In addition to writing the book, I had recently conducted several similar workshops in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, where I lived and worked at the time. Two days later, I received a very early call from Bill Worrall, asking me if I would be able to lead a workshop later that morning.  The person originally scheduled to appear was unable to make her flight.  I’m not a morning person, and was amazed that the voice that said “Certainly!” sounded eager and awake, even in its pre-coffee state.

I walked into a large convention room filled with the fans of the person who wasn’t there. Awkward! I introduced myself, explained the situation, and launched into the workshop based on my recently published book.  Thankfully, I had several copies of the book with me (ready to be submitted to the IOAT book review committee) to use for illustration and prompts.   I was off and running.

Bill sat in the back row, listening and evaluating. Remember, Bill and I had never met before this convention.  All of this was happening because of a verbal referral from a mutual colleague and friend.  A few minutes into the workshop, I saw Bill slip out.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a good sign….or not…but I kept going.  Bill soon returned with one of the organ industry’s brightest stars.   They sat down together and listened.  Bill left again, and soon returned with another performing artist.

One by one, that back row began to fill with artists I admired but had never met.  That, indeed, was my Ring of Fire.


At the end of my presentation, I received a standing ovation, not only from the convention attendees, but from these well-known greats of the organ industry.  I was humbled and amazed.  I ended up selling the books I had brought as review copies, and took orders for many more.  From that moment on, my career began to move in a very different direction.