As Thanksgiving comes at the end of November, I thought that I would pick one of the most traditional hymns for the American holiday: “We Gather Together.” The tune comes from a Dutch folk song and was first written down with the text “Wilt Heden Nu Treden” (literally “we wish to come [to gather]”) in 1597 by Adrianus Valerius. It was published in his posthumous collection Nederlandtsche Gedenck-Clanck (Dutch Songs of Commemoration) in 1626, where it is printed with an accompaniment written for lute. It was written to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spain at the Battle of Turnhout in the middle of the Eighty Years’ War; the book is not so much a musical score as it is a history of the war with music, poetry, essays, and etchings.
The Austrian choir director and composer Eduard Kremser harmonized “We Gather Together” in his 1878 collection Sechs Altniederlandische Volkslieder (Six Old Folk Songs from the Netherlands), and also made a piano arrangement of it. Kremser published it with the German translation “Wir treten zum Beten” (literally “we come to pray”) as well as a Latin version. He gave it the German title Dankgebet, which is either “Prayer of Thanks” or “Thanksgiving.” The English text that we typically sing was translated in 1894 by Theodore Baker. Baker is most famous for compiling Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians in 1900, and for translating a number of musical books and opera texts for G. Schirmer, many of which are still in use. His text follows:
We Gather Together
1 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.
2 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!
3 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!
The tune is also used for Julia C. Cory’s text “We Praise Thee, O God,” which was written in 1902 at the request of J. Archer Gibson of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York. Gibson found the words to “We Gather Together” to be “militaristic and unchristian” but loved the tune and so asked her to write a new version that preserved the general meaning while reducing the military imagery.
We Praise You, O God
1 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.
2 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.
3 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!
It gained greater popularity in the mid-1930s when the Dutch Reformed Church began allowing the singing of hymns during worship (previously psalmody had been the only singing permitted), and it was chosen as the first hymn in their first American hymnal. In addition to its use for Thanksgiving as well as some civic ceremonies, it was sung as the opening hymn at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ funeral Mass.