Though it is not included in our Lutheran Hymnals, “We Gather Together” is considered by many, including myself, to be a traditional Thanksgiving hymn. Even so, it was not written to be a hymn for the Thanksgiving holiday but rather a hymn of thanksgiving to God for His protection from and as a protest against Christian oppressors.
Most historians agree that we do not know who first wrote either the original lyrics or melody to this hymn. But we know the original tune was a Dutch folk melody, and the hymn “Wilt heden nu treden” gained popularity around the end of the 1500s and into the start of the next century in the Netherlands. This popularity coincided with the Dutch revolt against the Spanish. To be more specific, the Protestants were warring with Philip II, a Catholic, and it is assumed that it was because of this conflict that the hymn was written.
As has been the case at many points in history, the Protestants, under Catholic rule, were lawfully kept from gathering together. Thus, they “gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing” in opposition to those oppressing. After the Dutch were (mostly) free from Spanish rule, a man named Adriaen Valerius collected the hymn for his 1626 book Nederlandtsche Gedenck-Clanck. Valerius was actually of French heritage, but his father had moved to the Netherlands as a military clerk in 1592. His father was also an organist. Though not terribly gifted, Valerius loved writing and collecting poetry, especially that of a spiritual nature. These collections are what eventually made up his book, better known as “Dutch Remembrance Tunes.”
Today, the tune we attribute to the hymn, which is an adaptation to the original folk tune “Ey, wilder den wilt,” was arranged by Eduard Kremser in 1877. Kremser, for whom the tune in named, was from Vienna. He was known as a “choir director, conductor, composer, and musicologist,” the last of which I find fascinating. His composition for this hymn was based off the score in Valerius’ book, including it in his own book of arrangements for men, written in Latin and German.
Now this book by Kremser, Sechs Altniederlandische Volkslieder, is why we know of the song today. First, more people became aware of these Dutch tunes because of the book. Second, this German translation was the basis for the English translation we use today. In 1894, Theodore Baker found and translated this hymn into English. Though born in New York, Baker had been living in Germany for about twenty years when he found this hymn. A musicologist, he also wrote the Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians. At this time, he studied the music of the Seneca Indians and put together the first extensive work on the music of Native Americans. Baker had lived with the Seneca tribe and was made a member, thus allowing him to study their history and music.
When Baker wrote his translation, he called it the “Prayer for Thanksgiving,” which is now used as a hymn for the Thanksgiving holiday. However, Baker left in the very political undertones found in this original hymn in his translation. Like with other political hymns, this did not sit well with everyone, especially as the hymn became better known. Thus, a new hymn was born: “We Praise You, O God, Our Redeemer,” written by Julia Cory in 1902. It is this hymn that we find in our Lutheran hymnbooks today.
Now “We Gather Together” was included in American hymnals in 1903, though it appears to have had mixed acceptance among the Dutch settlers of New York and the rest of America. Although it seems that the hymn was brought to America by early Dutch settlers, it was not until the late 1930s that hymns were including with the Psalms in the Dutch Reformed Church. Thus, when this church created its hymnal, this hymn was to be its first piece. It was around this time as well that the hymn truly gained national popularity as our Thanksgiving anthem, which is unsurprising considering the Wars the world was facing at that time.
As there are two different versions of this hymn, I will include both. This hymn has become part of our hymnody tradition, and even its history of opposing tyrannical rule has made it relatable through the centuries. In this hymn, we give thanks to God for His guidance, protection, and deliverance. In response to this, we can also sing the second hymn born from the first as an offering to God in praise for what He has done for us.
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.
The hymn begins as a sort of announcement to the people singing. When this was written, such a gathering would be in opposition to what the governing authorities allowed. Though most Christians in the West don’t fear this now, when we gather before the Lord, we ask that He would bless us and care for us just as much as He did for those who came before (Psa. 67:1, Heb. 10:24-25). Without His aid, we would crumble. We also acknowledge that in times of trouble, we may be experiencing his discipline; we also trust that His will will be done (Psa. 94:12, Heb. 12:5-7). And while we gather in the Lord’s presence, the wicked’s schemes mean nothing (Num. 31:8, Psa. 119:134). We are in the Lord, and our trust is in Him (Luk. 12:6-7). So we can praise Him and have peace and joy because our faith is in Him, not in earthly, wicked powers.
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, wast at our side: all glory be Thine!
This verse also begins with a reminder to the people. Here, we remember that where we gather in His name, God is with us as He has promised (Matt. 18:20). In this, we also know that His will is still being done as He promised. He did not leave His creation to its own aims but guides and cares for it (Psa. 145:13)! Though we face trials, we know how the story ends (Jhn. 16:33, Rom. 8:31, 1 Thes. 5:10). Yes, like those who lived during the day the hymn was written, many die and never see freedom on earth. But we all know our reward was with God. The real battle is already won! And since the Lord carries us, we can stand. Thus, the verse ends with praise to God, our redeemer and defender (Psa. 5:11).
We all do extol Thee, Thou leader triumphant,
and pray that Thou still our defender wilt be.
Let Thy congregation endure through tribulation:
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!
We end, then, in praise to God. He is our leader, defender. He is already triumphant, and so we continually ask for His blessings and care with the certainty that He will do it. We ask that the Lord may sustain us through all our trials – be they from earthly or spiritual oppressors. And look: the words say now, in the midst of the trial, “Thy name be ever praised!” It is not once the trial is over or once we are free or once everything is as it should be. This is the world. We will have trials and hardships (Jhn. 14:27, 16:33). So while we are in the midst of trial, we praise the Lord and make our requests before Him that He might make us free on earth as He has redeemed for heaven (Psa. 57:1, Phil. 4:6).
We praise you, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
in grateful devotion our tribute we bring;
we lay it before you; we kneel and adore you;
we bless your holy name: glad praises we sing.
This second hymn was written during a different time with another purpose in mind. At this time, the world was, at least to the writers, largely at peace. Thus, this hymn of thanksgiving was more of a reflection of what had come before and thanks for the peace we have now.
This verse picks up where the last left off: praising God. We begin by reflecting on who God is (Psa. 78:35). And as this is a time of Thanksgiving, we offer our first fruits to the Lord “in grateful devotion.” We don’t do this halfheartedly or under compulsion, but because we love the Lord and are thankful for all He has done for us (2 Cor. 9:6-11, Psa. 116:17). We perhaps are even reflecting on those who first knelt before our Lord and how we will kneel and adore Him again on the Last Day. Contemplating all this, we bless the Lord for all He has done for us.
We worship you, God of our fathers and mothers;
through life’s storm and tempest our guide you have been;
when perils o’ertake us, you never forsake us,
and with your help, O Lord, our battles we win.
Again, we reflect on what has come before us and who God is. God is the “God of our fathers in ages past” and our hope for what comes ahead. Our bodily and spiritual ancestors trusted in Him through all storms (Psa. 44:1-8, 79:13). We face trials today as well, and the Lord still guides us through the darkness (Psa. 23). And reflecting on what the original hymn spoke of, sometimes we may perish in these trials. We live in a fallen world. And yet, our hope does not end there. The Lord does not forsake His children (Deut. 31:8, Psa. 26:12). So we trust all the more in our Lord, Guide, and Redeemer, who has already won the battle over death and saved us from our sin (Psa. 19:14, 33:21, 62:8, Rom. 8:37-39, 1 Cor. 15:54-58).
With voices united our praises we offer,
our songs of thanksgiving to you we now raise;
your strong arm will guide us, our God is beside us,
to you, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!
The final verse is really a joining of the previous two. As this was written for Thanksgiving, we also see that theme here. This is a song for the season, but it is also a song for every season of sorrow and praise. Gathered together, we praise the Lord. Trusting in God, we praise the Lord. Holding fast to Him who holds us and redeemed us, we praise the Lord. So during this Thanksgiving season, we remember that during times of plenty or times of scarcity, during trials or peace, our hope is in the Lord (Psa. 33, 100:4, 2 Cor. 4:15, 9:11). Thus, we can and should always thank and praise Him (Psa. 71:14, 95:1-7).
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“785. We Praise You, O God.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
Adrianus Valerius. Hymntime.
Morgan, Robert. Then Sings My Soul Book 3. Nelson. 2012. p. 133.
Osbeck, Kenneth. Amazing Grace. Kregal Publications. 2002. p. 339.
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