Christmas carols will always be everyone's favorite holiday songs—partly because there are so many good ones, and partly because we sing them for almost a whole month at the “most wonderful time of the year.” The Easter hymns aren't far behind, with their exuberant and triumphant celebration of life after death. But there is also something to be said for the joyous solemnity of the hymns we love to sing at Thanksgiving. They too have their place on our spiritual calendar, bringing many happy memories of fellowship and feasting.
Most of the traditional harvest hymns—like “Come, Ye Thankful People Come,” for example, or “Now Thank We All Our God”—do not have any historical connection to the Pilgrims. However, there is one hymn that speaks directly to the context of religious persecution and that is distinctively Protestant in its imagery. It may even have a tune that the Pilgrims knew how to sing.
“We Gather Together” is a well-known Christian hymn that Americans often sing around the time of Thanksgiving, to the tune known as Kremser. In fact, our own Trinity Hymnal has a second hymn that we sing to the same tune, and often at the same time of year: “We Praise You, O God, Our Redeemer, Creator.”
The melody goes at least as far back as the sixteenth century, when apparently it was sung as a folk song. Its original Dutch lyrics were secular, not religious. “Wilder than wild,” the song began, “who will tame me?” (“Wilder dan wilt, wie sal mij temmen?”).
This secular song became a Christian hymn in January of 1597, when Dutch Protestants defeated their Spanish oppressors at the Battle of Turnhout. For decades the Spaniards had occupied various cities in the Low Countries. Under the rule of Spain's King Philip II, Roman Catholic religion was enforced as law. Dutch Protestants were forbidden to practice the worship of the Reformation, sometimes on the pain of death. On other occasions Reformed Christians were driven wholesale out of their cities.
The Battle of Turnhout marked the end of this oppression. Under Prince Maurice, the House of Orange defeated the Spanish forces on January 24, 1597. This famous victory was marked by the singing of a new anthem to an old tune: “We Gather Together” (“Wilt heden nu treden”), sung to the folk tune Kremser.
The opening line is full of theological and spiritual significance. To “gather together” is to meet together for the worship of God. It is specifically to meet together as a church, for that is the meaning of ekklesia, the biblical term for church (e.g. Eph. 3:10). We are literally a “congregation”—a gathering of the people of God. Following the Battle of Turnhout, Dutch Protestants were finally able to have their own free worship gatherings and to follow what they believed to be the biblical pattern for religious worship, in keeping with their own conscience. “We Gather Together” soon became a popular standard, first appearing in print with a 1626 collection of Dutch patriotic songs (Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck).
As I hinted earlier, it is at least possible that the English Pilgrims who came to America on the good ship Mayflower knew this song. Remember that for more than a decade they lived and worked in Holland—the only place in Europe where they could then find religious freedom. In their own worship services they only sang the biblical psalms. However, “We Gather Together” was such a popular song that they may well have heard people whistling it in the street or singing it in the marketplace.
Although the song didn't come to America with the Pilgrims, it probably came soon afterwards, with the Dutch settlers of the 1620's. It has been popular in the Dutch Reformed community ever since, and eventually it crossed over into the mainstream of evangelical churches in America. The arrangement we sing today was published in Leipzig by the Viennese choirmaster Eduard Kremser (1877) and then translated into English by Theodore Baker, who called it a “prayer of thanksgiving.” “We Gather Together” became much more widely popular in America following 1935, when it was included in the national hymnal of the Methodist-Episcopal Church. The hymn's militant theme naturally made it a favorite during World War II, and over the last century it has become a Thanksgiving favorite.
The hymn has several strong Reformation themes. One is the sovereignty of God, who alone deserves the glory of our praise. The God we praise when we “gather together” is the God who “hastens his will to make known,” and who is busy “ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine.” God's active engagement with the world is based on the counsel of his own eternal will. As he builds his everlasting kingdom, he alone is worthy of our worship, so we sing: “all glory be thine!”
The language of the hymn also reflects its original context of Protestant-Catholic conflict. “We Gather Together” is a victory hymn to sing when “the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.” The old Dutch Calvinists were thinking of their Spanish oppressors when they wrote these words, but the principle holds true for the people of God in all ages. The victory we win—whether physical or spiritual—only comes because the Lord, who “forgets not his own,” is “at our side.”
One of the reasons “We Gather Together” has remained a favorite Thanksgiving hymn is because it is honest about the struggles of life. The Christian life is always a battle, and the thanks we give to God always come from the front lines of spiritual warfare. It is always “thro’ tribulation” that a Christian congregation perseveres each year to Thanksgiving. Then as we gather together we pray, “O Lord, make us free!”
[Factual information for this Window on the World came from Melanie Kirkpatrick, “A hymn's long journey home,” Wall Street Journal (November 22, 2005)]
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