At various times in my mother’s life, she was more or less religious; she knew the value of a good church community, and wherever her theology lay (usually on the Unitarian side), she loved an old hymn. Among the tapes – then CDs – in her car were collections of hymns sung by old familiar voices. The one I remember most is Tennessee Ernie Ford, the album full of songs intoned in Ford’s deep baritone – songs like The Old Rugged Cross, How Great Thou Art, and of course Shall We Gather at the River.
A song that, delightfully, is in this hymnal. Now I haven’t verified this with anyone, but I have heard a story that the song was in our hymnals up to Singing the Living Tradition but was removed for that collection; the uproar was such that the STJ commission added it back. Whether it’s true or not, it does contain a nugget of truth about tradition – that despite all the important, vibrant, relevant new music, there’s something about old familiar tunes that bring us back to a sense of … something: center? self? connection?
That being said, it’s a remarkable piece, written by Robert Lowry (who wrote How Can I Keep From Singing, among many others), and reflecting the river of life as described in the Book of Revelation. It is a hopeful song, calling us to rejoice and celebrate in life.
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 walk and worship ever, all the happy golden day.
Ere we reach the shining river, lay we ev’ry burden down.
Grace our spirits will deliver, and provide a robe and a crown.
Soon we’ll reach the shining river, soon our pilgrimage will cease,
soon our happy hearts will quiver, with the melody of peace.
What’s interesting to me is how often I hear it these days in a gentle, somber, almost meditative pace so that it’s not so much a celebration as a contemplation. And that’s fine, but it was intended to be much more joyful; according to Hymnary, Lowry said: “It is brass band music, has a march movement, and for that reason has become popular, though for myself I do not think much of it.”
He may not have thought much of it, but there is a hopefulness and grounded joy in this hymn that makes it a classic and a favorite.