Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith:We Gather Together

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on November 25, 2007

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Hymns of the Faith


“We Gather
Together”

A Presentation of
First Presbyterian Church

Jackson,
Mississippi

With

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill
Wymond

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is “Hymns of the
Faith,” brought to you by Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church. The minister of
First Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Here with “Hymns of the
Faith” is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: It’s great to be with Bill and with
Derek Thomas this morning, again talking about hymns. “Hymns of the Faith”
celebrates the great hymns of the Christian tradition — two thousand years of
life, and singing rich theology…biblical teaching wrapped up in beautiful texts
that have been sung by the people of God in the best of times and in the worst
of times.

And today we’re looking at a hymn that is both old
and new. It’s old in that its origins and its original composition date to the
1600’s and to a very significant victory in the history of The Netherlands. The
Dutch people are a people that are famous for the strategic role that they
played in the days of Europe’s height of power and influence in the world. The
Dutch East India Company stretched around the globe, perhaps even before the
British Empire stretched around the globe influencing cultures far and near. But
all along, beside and under those great historical events in The Netherlands was
a religious story that was going on: a fight for religious freedom. And in The
Netherlands in particular there was a very strong Calvinistic church, and this
particular hymn celebrates a victory and acknowledges God’s providential hand in
the life of God’s people.

And here in the United States — I say it’s an old
hymn and a new, because this hymn probably did not come into the tradition of
being well known in American churches until the twentieth century. It was
translated first from Dutch into Latin, but it wasn’t translated into English
until the end of the 1800’s, and it probably didn’t find its way into American
hymnals until maybe the 19-teens or -twenties.

I can remember singing this hymn in a public state
elementary school in probably first, second, third, fourth grade, around
Thanksgiving time. This hymn, for whatever reason, has in the American psyche
and in the twentieth century been a hymn that you sing at Thanksgiving time. I
think part of that probably stretches back to the way it was used in its own
early days amongst the Dutch peoples, when there were Dutch йmigrйs to America.
I think this song was probably brought with them in their own traditions and
associated with harvest songs and thanksgiving times. It’s very appropriate for
that, although when Derek tells you the background of it, you’ll understand a
little bit more of the significance of the specific language.

Maybe that will be helpful. We’re talking about the
song, We Gather Together. I just want to play through it one time, and
then Derek can tell the audience a little bit about the background of this great
hymn. [Hymn played on piano.]

Dr. Thomas: Well, I just smelled pumpkin pie in the
air! And for Americans I suppose that tune just evokes all the memories of
families gathering at Thanksgiving. I think for you Americans it’s much more
important for you than Christmas, which would be the case in Britain. I don’t
ever remember singing this hymn the whole time I was in Britain. I know the tune
extremely well; I know the hymn well, but I associate it with Thanksgiving. It’s
a hymn that was written in 1625, in Holland; and it’s a very important year in
Holland, because it’s the year that one of the Williams of the Orange Order, the
Orange dynasty in Holland, came into power. He was the son of William the
Silent, who was assassinated, I think, just months before this William was born.
This is the William who is the grandfather of the famous William of Orange (in
British terms “King Billy”) who fought in the so-called Battle of the Boyn in
1690 in the Catholic/Protestant wars of aggression in the seventeenth century.
This period, 1625, when this hymn come into being, is a period when in Dutch
politics they would have just won a victory over the Spanish.

Dr. Duncan: …who had been occupying that part of
Europe for some years…

Dr. Thomas: For a while…and also, of course,
emancipated from the Roman Catholic Church. And before them lie now thirty,
forty, fifty years of perhaps the most prolific period. It’s the time of Vermeer
and Rembrandt, and Dutch Protestantism, and so this hymn takes on, I think, in
1625, all the tones of…I suppose, like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God…

Dr. Duncan: Or Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.
You were telling us that it was really almost a second national anthem in
Britain. And you get the feel that it’s got that kind of thing going for sort of
the Dutch and Dutch-American tradition.

Dr. Thomas: Right. And my understanding is that when
Dutch immigrants came across to America, they brought this hymn with them.

Dr. Duncan: There is a fascinating article about
this, for people who like to go and look at these things, on the internet. If
you go to The Wall Street Journal on November 22, 2005, go into their
Archives
and look at their Opinion journal. There is an article
called A Hymn’s Long Journey Home that sort of places the origins of this
particular song.

Dr. Thomas: You know, anyone who has spent any time
at all in the company of the Dutch, knows the saying, “If you ain’t Dutch, you
ain’t much!” I’ve just come back, in fact, this past week, from spending a few
days with a group of Dutchmen, and they’re very proud of their history, and
they’re very patriotic. They have a language and an identity and a culture that
is very unique, and it’s not difficult to imagine this hymn in Dutch gatherings
at thanksgiving with pumpkin pie with lots of Gouda cheese and the rest of it,
and they sing We Gather Together to Ask the Lord’s Blessing. And it takes
on another hue for a blessing on the family, and maybe thanksgiving comes to
mind as you think of those opening lines.

Dr. Duncan: Well, apparently (I’m told by the people
that have written about this hymn, both in some of the hymnology books as well
as in this article) one reason this hymn took off in the United States was its
association with Thanksgiving, but another reason was it was translated during
the time of the First World War, what we call World War I — which you would have
called the Great War, I guess, growing up. And Americans, I think, began to
think in terms of the text of the song about themselves and their own experience
in the ways that I’m sure that the Dutch folk had thought about themselves in
the words of this song in a time of great conflagration and conflict and war.
The text is very robust. It talks about things that you don’t hear many songs
today, even sung in Christian churches, talk about. And to think of a nation as
a whole identifying with these terms…I mean, listen to the very first phrase:

“We gather
together to ask the Lord’s blessing;”

[Well, that’s relatively innocuous, until you get to the
next line]

“He chastens
and hastens His will to make known.”

So, in the song, before you’ve gotten through the first
full phrase it’s already acknowledging God’s chastening hand on the nation, on
the people, in the course of His providence; in this case, the chastening being
suffering the oppression of the Spanish Roman Catholics that were restricting
religious liberty and persecuting and oppressing the native Hollanders and
Netherlanders in that part of the world.

Dr. Thomas: It has some of the most beautiful turns
of phrase: “Beside us to guide us…” — once you say that, you’ll carry it with
you for hours. Just like the opening line, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s
blessing.”

It has the advantage of a really good tune. You can’t
think now of this phrase, “We gather together,” without the tune coming
immediately to mind. We were talking earlier about how folk tunes just have to
be sung.

Dr. Duncan: And I’m struck. We’ve done a handful
of songs now, together…a couple of handfuls of songs together…on “Hymns of the
Faith.” We’ve just started out on this project, so we’ve done maybe ten or so.
And I am struck, Bill Wymond, by how many of these started out as folk tunes.
And this is apparently even another one. This tune was coming into being in,
say, the late sixteenth century, the late 1500’s, before it becomes associated
with this particular text, but it’s a great tune.

Dr. Wymond: There is something that interests me
about this, because it’s a robust tune. I think that very robustness that you
find in the folk tunes is what attracted folks to them and had them appropriate
those and put Christian words. Because the tune is older than the hymn, older
than the text.

Most of the church tunes were based on the
Gregorian chants
, which came from the very early life of the church — even
back to 600 — and most of those were based on older modes that were a bit more
serious and didn’t have quite the energy that the folk songs have. So I think
that’s why this particular tune, as we’ll be talking about it, is so energetic
and just seems to supply the words with the kind of vigor that you would want.

Of course, the Dutch were not singing this in church,
as you’ve already said. In fact, it was first published in a book of patriotic
songs in Holland, and so it interests me, as you’re talking about the text, that
this is what the people were singing as patriots, and the Dutch were so
(at that time)…so aligned with interest in spiritual things.

Dr. Duncan: Well, walk us through the tune, then,
itself. We’ve talked before about how some of the tunes more influenced by the
Gregorian chant will run their way up scales and down the scales in a relatively
uniform sort of way. How does this song operate? Because it is a little bit
different from what they would have been using for melody lines in their
Psalters at that time. Talk to us a little bit about the tune.

Dr. Wymond: Well, let’s say that we’re comparing
this with the Gregorian chant. A Gregorian chant tune might go
[demonstrates on piano]…all the notes very close together and staying within
the same range
pretty much. The interesting thing about this hymn that
gives it its particular vigor is that as you progress through the tune, it goes
higher and higher up the scale
. You start out at a very comfortable
range [demonstrates]…and as you get more intense, you start moving up the scale
[demonstrates]…and so on [demonstrates]. So what happens is that you have a
wedding here of emotional intensity that goes along with the increasing fervor
of the words, I think.

Dr. Duncan: And that’s exactly right. I mean, the
words… We talked about the first line, “He chastens and hastens His will to make
known”… and then it continues to crescendo into “The wicked oppressing now cease
from distressing.” And this, Derek, in its original context, is probably an
allusion to that liberation from the occupying Spanish forces in The
Netherlands, and it evokes this phrase, “Sing praises to His name, He forgets
not His own.” So it’s an acknowledgement of God’s providential hand in the
history of that nation.

Dr. Thomas: Yes. It’s very Psalm-like in its
allusion to “the wicked oppressing”–it doesn’t mince any words! And I think in
an age where the Psalms were sung, that kind of robust language, facing the
reality of political and religious oppression, was something they sang. But it’s
a very Mighty Fortress Is Our God kind of hymn, in that it’s extolling
God as the mighty deliverer, warrior, fighting on behalf of His people. And I
love the way it closes:

“Let Thy congregation endure
through tribulation;

Thy name be ever praised! O
Lord, make us free!”

I sort of wonder, is that why the Americans really took to
this hymn? Because the notion of freedom is so much at the heart of the American
psyche–the land of the free, and so on.

Dr. Duncan: Yes, and you know, it’s interesting,
though. The line that you quoted is an emendation to this hymnal (which our
friend Bill Wymond worked on), and I wonder whether Bill or whether Ed Clowney
made that emendation, because in the Theodore Baker translation, it goes “Let
Thy congregation escape tribulation.” And this is a much more
Calvinistic, I might say, rendering of the text:

“Let Thy congregation endure
through tribulation;

Thy name be ever praised! O
Lord, make us free!”

And as you say, there are so many powerful lines in this
song. The beginning of that stanza, for instance…it is so Dutch!

“We all do
extol Thee, Thou leader triumphant….”

In Dutch and in German the name “leader” resonates way
back, you know, three, four, five hundred years in terms of the …whether you’re
talking about Wilhelm or the Bavarian princes or whatever else “…pray that Thou
still our defender wilt be.” And then, as you say, “Let Thy congregation….” This
is a patriotic…it’s a national hymn, and yet the language of the church is being
used to describe the people as a whole.

It does remind you of how much in both the American,
the Dutch, and the British tradition, there would have been a blurring of
language of Christendom (or the language of the church) for the language of the
nation in the public discourse and in the public singing. Like I say, I grew up
singing this song in public school. You couldn’t conceive of singing this song
in a public school today.

Dr. Wymond: I do think that’s a great loss, because
in our schools we had strong music programs, right from the elementary years all
the way through, where children were taught the folk songs of the country and a
lot of the main hymns of the country, and we are seeing the results of not doing
that now in our church choirs, because the youth and the children don’t have the
background for singing that they used to, unless they happen to go to a school
that defies that trend. It’s a real loss that people just don’t sing so much,
and that they don’t know our culture — much less the hymnody — that used to be
sung there. So I would make a great argument for public school music education
that would put some of these songs back into the hearts and minds of the people.

Dr. Duncan: For sure! And I can remember in my music
education classes being taught things like this. Of course, I was singing in
church as well, but they were being taught. The background of them was being
explained, and we were learning a little about the music itself. I was struck by
a phrase that Melanie Kirkpatrick in this Wall Street Journal article
says. She says, “Folk melodies have a way of wanting to be sung.” And I was
struck by that, because music today doesn’t necessarily “want” to be sung. It
wants to be listened to, or it wants to be downloaded, or it wants to be
purchased, but it doesn’t necessarily want to be sung. In fact, some of it is
utterly un-singable by an ordinary mortal! And yet folk melodies have this way
of making us want to sing them, and this song does that, don’t you think, Bill?

Dr. Wymond: I think so. And even some of the popular
music of the sixties, which some will remember, still had folk origins. “Peter,
Paul and Mary” and so on…everybody liked to sing those. But as we move into an
age even in our churches where we are observers rather than participants, we are
finding people singing less and less. They are watching people sing, and not
really joining in heartily into the singing. And so all of this mitigates
against folks knowing how to sing and wanting to sing.

Dr. Thomas: I think it’s interesting the way this
hymn picks up on a very Puritan theme, right in the seventeenth century. Of
course, it’s Dutch Puritanism, but the idea of the Christian life being a fight,
a struggle, a pilgrimage…

“Beside us to guide us, our God
with us joining,

Ordaining, maintaining His
kingdom divine;”

Dr. Duncan: By the way, is that not just gorgeous! I
mean, this line is just so rich!

Dr. Thomas: Beautiful…gorgeous…

“So from the beginning, the
fight we were winning:

Thou, Lord, wast at our side:
all glory be Thine!”

And Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s
Progress
comes to mind readily, as we think of that. That’s an aspect of the
Christian faith that’s important for health — Christian health: to remember as
you gather together that this is a fight; that here we have no continuing city,
and that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and
powers. I think of how Bunyan especially portrays Christian and Faithful
fighting against Apollyon (Satan). And you know, it’s about this time during the
seventeenth century that William Gurnall, that great Puritan, wrote that massive
book that was so popular among Christians in Britain, The Christian in
Complete Armor: An Exposition of Ephesians 6
— “Put on the whole armor of
God…” and I think that’s so health-giving.

You know, our worship tends to become so very
self-centered, and people get so distressed because they find themselves in
trouble, whereas, I think in this era trouble is what you should expect, and you
should be distressed if you don’t have trouble. And I think this hymn, like the
fighting song of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, is redolent to me of how
Christians see themselves engaged in a struggle in this life, but armed and
equipped with spiritual armor and God at their side.

Dr. Wymond: Well, Derek, I don’t want to pick on any
particular church, but the trend today it seems in churches and in preaching is
to see how quickly we can get out from under the burden or the problem, which is
so contrary to what’s being talked about here today — seeking Christian comfort
by not having any burdens.

Dr. Thomas: I was reading yesterday in John Owen —
who again is in this period — and he was exhorting Christians not to duck out
from the trial, but to see that trial as God’s providential opportunity to
enable you to grow; that unless you pass through this trial, you’re not going to
grow into the maturity that God wants you to experience. And I think there was a
robustness to Christianity that sang these hymns and identified them as
emblematic of what the Christian life is all about.

Dr. Duncan: I was in a meeting not long ago in
Atlanta with some leaders of the Presbyterian Church in America, and our friend
Tim Keller, from the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York City —
right in the shadow of the two towers of the World Trade Center that came down
on September 11, 2001, that’s right where he ministers — and he was saying to us
that that whole experience had caused him to do a lot of reflection about
American Christianity. One thing that he had become convinced of is that we were
not doing a good job of preparing our people to suffer. And it seems to me that
one of the things about this text is that it assumes the very framework of a
life of fight and trial and tribulation and suffering.

Let’s hear this song, Bill.

Dr. Wymond: This morning, Dr. Duncan, Kay Eduardo
will sing for us We Gather Together.

“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 form the beginning the fight
we were winning:

Thou, Lord, wast at our side: all
glory be Thine!

“We all do extol Thee, our leader
triumphant,

And pray that Thou still our
defender wilt be.

Let Thy congregation endure thro’
tribulation:

Thy name be ever prais’d! O Lord,
make us free!”

Dr. Wymond: This has been “Hymns of the Faith”
brought to you by First Presbyterian Church. The First Presbyterian Church is
located on North State Street, just a block north of the Mississippi Baptist
Medical Center. Our worship services are at 8:30, 11:00, and 6:00. We’d invite
you to come and worship with us today.

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