Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

Early in the 60s I was listening to a classical music station and was stopped dead in my tracks by the deep, mellow voice of the black baritone, William Warfield singing "Shall We Gather at the River." I later discovered that this was one of four Old American Songs arranged by Aaron Copland, three of which were sacred, "Simple Gifts," "Zion's Walls," and "At the River." I was surprised that the classical music world had found an old chestnut that we had by and large buried. Though it was in the Covenant hymnals of 1931 and 1950, it was voted down in the hymnal of 1973. The story behind the hymn is worth telling. Robert Lowry (1826-1899), a Baptist minister, was reflecting on the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 22:1-2: "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city."

Carlton R. Young in the Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal fills in the details from earlier historical sources:

On a very hot summer day in 1864, a pastor was seated in his parlour in Brooklyn, New York. It was a time when an epidemic was sweeping through the city, and draping many persons and dwellings in mourning. All around friends and acquaintances were passing away to the spirit land in large numbers. The question began to arise in the heart, with unusual emphasis, "Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?"
"Seating myself at the organ," says he, "simply to give vent to the pent of emotions of the heart, the words and music of the hymn began to flow out, as if by inspiration."

Carlton Young points out that most hymnals omit the stanza: "At the smiling of the river, Mirror of the Saviour's face, Saints, whom death will never sever, Lift their songs of saving grace."

I listened often to William Warfield's recording of "At the River." When I discovered that this early American hymn by Robert Lowry had made it across the Atlantic to Sweden, my curiosity was aroused. Hymn writer and composer, Joel Bloomquist (1840-1930) was drawn by the text and melody to create a paraphrase of the hymn. In the early 70s I purchased an LP entitled Sorgen och Gladjen (Sorrow and Gladness) by a Swedish jazz group who played the melody of "At the River" under the title of Bloomquist's "O hur saligt att få vandra" ("O How Blest to Be a Pilgrim"). I learned further that his version was in our first official hymnal Sions Basun (1908) and was loved and often sung by our forebears.

I later discovered that my friend Signe Bennett (1900-1996) at North Park Church had done some preliminary work translating Bloomquist's paraphrase. It was quite literal and lacked poetry and I felt a strong urge to finish what she had begun. This translation first appeared in New Hymns and Translations (1978) then in The Song Goes On (1990) and currently in The Covenant Hymnal. A Worshipbook (1996) Hymn 758. "O How Blest to Be a Pilgrim" was sung by more than a thousand people in the midnight Service of Holy Communion at the Covenant Centennial in Minneapolis on June 22, 1985.

O how blest to be a pilgrim,
guided by the Father's hand;
free at last from ev'ry burden
we shall enter Canaan's land.

Refrain:

Songs of vict'ry there shall greet us,
like the thund'ring of a mighty flood.
Endless praises be to Jesus,
who redeemed us by his blood.

On this side of Jordan's river,
sighs too deep for words are known,
but we look for bright tomorrows
in Jerusalem our home.

There no clouds of darkness gather,
neither sorrow, tears, nor woe,
nothing harmful e'er shall enter,
sin and pain we will not know.

Here from loved ones we are parted,
earthly sorrows never cease,
but within that glorious city
we shall meet again in peace.

O may none give up the journey,
left in darkness on the shore,
may we all at last be gathered
when our pilgrimage is o'er.

What commends the Bloomquist paraphrase of "Shall We Gather at the River" is that it fills out the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 22 and removes a certain ambiguity in the original by giving "endless praises to Jesus, who redeemed us by his blood." If our hymnal commission were doing the hymnal now, given the work of Signe Bennett and me and our fondness for the Bloomquist paraphrase, I would propose retaining the original "Shall We Gather at the River" placing it side by side with "O How Blest to Be a Pilgrim." What do you think?

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

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