This hymn has special meaning for me. The first time I heard this hymn, I was twelve years old. My Grosmom Emilie (paternal grandmother) rocked gently in her new steel chair on the front porch singing, ‘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.’
My Grosmom was born in June of 1876, and came to this country from Russia at the age of sixteen. I could not fathom such a trip at that age and admired my Grosmom. I wondered then which river she sang about. She spoke only Plautt Dietch and I spoke English – yet we spent hours visiting with each other.
Revelation 22:1-2 tells of the special river – not the Dneiper River in Ukraine or Volga that she had lived near. Robert Lowry, the composer of this hymn, thought about this same scripture. He lived from 1826 – 1899, and wrote this hymn in 1864, when Grosmom was twelve years old in Russia. How then did my Grosmom know this song? Was Grosmom thinking about her family, her loved ones, often separated her on earth by miles, gathered together on the shore of the Beautiful River.
Revelation 22:1-2 - Then the angel showed me a river with the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It flowed down the center of the main street. On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month. The leaves were used for medicine to heal the nations.
One source I read described Robert Lowry as a cheerful man with a quick mind. He often gave vivid descriptions. He painted word pictures for others to see as he preached. His words described Heaven with joy. While enduring the sweltering heat, he was totally exhausted physically. A contagious epidemic hit New York City then – causing untold deaths. In his pastoral duties, he visited members of his congregation and buried those who died. While thinking about all the people who were dying, Robert Lowry thought about the great reunion at the ‘river of life’ in heaven. In his mind he envisioned God’s throne, the heavenly river of life and the gathering of the saints. He read the scripture from Revelation 22:1-2. He reveled in the thought of the beauty of the ‘river of life’. Even though he died in 1899, his words continue to be sung to give hope and comfort to many people by giving expression to their deepest desire to praise God for His unfailing goodness.
It was in 1943, during World War II, when my Grosmom’s death finally came. It was a stifling August afternoon. Her death was overwhelming to me. It brought me face to face with the mystery of death. Her life was spent in serving others. She raised four sons and one daughter. I have a large photo of the daughter she lost to meningitis hanging in my living room. Grosmom took care of her husband, Jacob after he was paralyzed and was unable to preach sermons, conduct auctions, or farm.
It has been seventy-four years since Grosmom died. I still remember her steadfast faith in God and the message of the hymn she sang so often. I remember our dual-language conversations. She taught me faith in Jesus Christ by singing. Now, as I say goodbye to family members, one by one, I am comforted. I remember Grosmom’s voice so long ago singing the hymn, Shall We Gather At the River.
Thank you, Robert Lowry, for sharing your gift of faith and hope-filled words to so many as they sing the song God gave you.
Psalm 46:4-5 - A river brings joy to the city of our God, the sacred home of the Most High. God dwells in that city; it cannot be destroyed. From the very break of day, God will protect it.
Isaiah 43 – 1-2 - But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you. O Israel, the one who formed you says, “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you.
2 Kings 5:9-10 - So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and waited at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: “Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.”
John 7:37-39 - On the last day, the climax of the festival, Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” (When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. But the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not yet entered into his glory.)