Friday, November 21, 2014

We Gather Together

by C.J. Chase

Three years ago, I wrote a post discussing the background of the Thanksgiving hymn “Now Thank We All Our God.” If you don’t know that convicting story about giving God thanks in the good, the bad, and the very bad, you should take a moment to check out the link. With Canadian Thanksgiving just recently passed and American Thanksgiving less than a week away, I thought it might be interesting to take this time of year to look at the origins of another hymn frequently associated with the season, “We Gather Together to Ask the Lord's Blessing.”

The melody of “We Gather Together” predates the words, having originally been a 16th century Dutch folk song, “Ey, Wilder dan Wilt,” (“Hey, wilder than wild” in English), a ballad of 24 verses about a condemned man whose lover betrayed him—a most unlikely beginning for a popular hymn celebrating God's faithfulness. Fortunately, more enduring lyrics allowed this wonderful tune to survive to our time.

The lyrics of “We Gather Together” are a few decades older than “Now Thank We All Our God,” but they harken back to the same era of Europe’s religious conflicts. As the Reformation gathered steam, the northern and western provinces of what is now the Netherlands embraced the Protestant movement. However, there was a problem: the Dutch were ruled by King Philip II of Spain, a devout man who believed Protestants were heretics and should be made to return to Catholicism or die. Protestants risked their lives whenever they “gathered together” for worship. By the late 16th century, the Dutch were engaged in a war for their independence, in large part so they could worship freely.

Adriaen Valerius usually gets the credit for penning the Dutch lyrics of "We Gather Together." Valerius (c. 1575-1625) was a government official with a hobby of writing music and poetry. Some of his work was first published as part of a collection of Dutch poetry in 1623, but his magnum opus, a collection of folk tunes and poems  he gathered/wrote over a 30-year period during the Dutch War of Independence, wasn’t published until 1626, a year after his death. We will probably never know how many pieces in Nederlandtsche gedenck-clanck were original works and how many Valerius collected from other sources, but there is no doubt as to their historical significance. "Het Wilhelmus," the Dutch national anthem, appears for the first time in this work, as does “Wilt Heden Nu Treden,” written in 1597 to celebrate the Dutch victory over the Spanish at Turnhout. 

Here is a video of “Wilt Heden Nu Treden” as performed by a Dutch choir and orchestra. If you know the English hymn "We Gather Together" well, you might notice subtle differences in the rhythm. 

The song traveled a rather circuitous route to popularity as an English-language hymn in America.  Though well loved in the Netherlands for centuries, the song was all but unknown in America except among a few Dutch settlers and their descendants. Then in the late 19th century, Viennese choirmaster Eduard Kremser (1838-1914) composed an arrangement on the tune. United with Josef Weyl’s German translation of the lyrics, the song "Wir treten zum Bites for Gott" became a hit in Germany, especially with Keizer Wilhelm II. (Side note: if I’m reading the Dutch sources correctly, the Nazis later adopted the hymn. Because of that association, the song has fallen out of favor in modern Germany.)

American organist Theodore Baker (1851-1934) was studying music in Germany at the time.  Shortly after his return to America (and his new position as editor for music publisher G. Schirmer), he translated the German words into the English “We Gather Together” in 1894. Even two degrees removed from the original language, the words still tell the story of a people worshipping in spite of persecution:

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.

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!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!

It took a lot of searching on Youtube for me to find the perfect version to play here. Okay, I never did find exactly what I wanted (choir and organ -- just the way I remember it from my youth), but this slow, a cappella version is lovely. And the Pilgrims, who lived in the Netherlands 11 years before emigrating for America in 1620, may well have been familiar with the Dutch version of the song. 

More and more, Thanksgiving is becoming overshadowed by Christmas, which is a pity because we need time for praise and reflection and gratitude. So tell me, what are some of your favorite songs and traditions of thanksgiving?

After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at


  1. I love this hymn. And it's fun to find out how many of those classic hymns came from old "secular" songs back in the day... kind of points out the silliness of arguing about "contemporary" worship music. Thanks for the history lesson, CJ!

    1. Niki, it made me think of the Star-Spangled Banner being a drinking song originally. Not quite that bad, but still not what you would expect.

      Funny thing is most of those old secular song would have almost certainly been lost to time if it hadn't been for their second life as hymns.

    2. I'm not familiar with the words, but I felt comforted as I read them, CJ.

      Unfortunately, I can't see the videos as the spot where they should be is a black box. But I'll be on the lookout for them and I'll keep checking in case they show up. Thanks for this informative post.

    3. Sorry you can't see the vids, Anita. Mine were working fine until last night, and now I can't watch anything until I run an update on my computer (which I thought I'd already done.)

  2. Cool post, CJ. This is a lovely hymn, and you've made an important point about taking time to give thanks!

    1. Thanks, Susie. This hymn has always been a favorite of mine.

  3. CJ, your mention of American Thanksgiving mixing in with Christmas is something that has always made me wonder because it seems that every Thanksgiving movie or TV special has a Christmas tree and turkey and the characters talk about "the holidays" as if it's one and the same.

    I like the 2 and a half month gap between our Cdn Thanksgiving and Christmas as it allows us to focus on each one individually.

    1. Anita, it gets worse and worse as retailers push the Christmas season longer and longer. I'd never heard the term "Black Friday" when I was younger -- and now stores are offering their "Black Friday" sales on Thanksgiving Day!

      At the rate it's going, "Christmas" (and I use that term loosely to designate the retail season) is going to swallow up all of November. You may yet see trees up for Canadian Thanksgiving.

      Don't get me wrong: I love Christmas. But I prefer it be…special.

      Okay, rant over.

  4. That's a lovely hymn. Thanks for sharing about it. :)

    1. It was fun, DeAnna. I love music, and I feel a little sad that it seems so many of the hymns might not be passed down after my generation.

  5. I can't recall the last time I heard this/ sang it in church. Who knows? we might have sung it in music class in school at this time of year (it wasn't such a travesty back, then right?) I like knowing more about the origin and have to admit I learned a lot more about Dutch history this year when I was on my kick of reading stories about Queen Elizabeth 1 Thanks so much for reminding us of this lovely hymn and exposing all that's behind it.
    I agree with Anita that it's nice to have that longer break (If we had Thanksgiving at Columbus Day instead!)
    But I do love this holiday for the fact it's just about family (and food) and being together.

    1. Deb, during my research, I saw mentions of people singing this song in school back in the day.

      Just think. If Thanksgiving were in October, people in places like NY might not be buried under several feel of snow when they were planning to travel! I always thought November seemed like a bit late for what was essentially a feast to give thanks to God for the harvest. (I would think the harvest would come in earlier in Massachusetts.)


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