Melanie Kirkpatrick: The surprising origins of "We Gather Together," a Thanksgiving standard
Its mention of God makes it verboten in schools today. But not too many years ago this was the season when teachers would lead their students in the great ecumenical Thanksgiving hymn, "We Gather Together to Ask the Lord's Blessing." It's a singable melody, and the stirring lyrics speak directly of the Pilgrims' experience in overcoming religious persecution.
Or do they? With the exception of Native Americans, we're all the descendants of those who came to the New World from somewhere else. So too, it turns out, did "We Gather Together," whose origins are Dutch and speak of religious persecution that predates the first Thanksgiving. It's appropriate that a hymn we sing to celebrate a quintessentially American holiday is, like most of us, a transplant.
The melody can be traced back to 1597 and is probably older than that. It started out as a folk song, whose secular lyrics set a decidedly nonreligious tone. "Wilder dan wilt, wie sal mij temmen," the song began, or "Wilder than wild, who will tame me?" Folk melodies have a way of wanting to be sung--think "Greensleeves," which has numerous sets of lyrics associated with it--and "Wilder dan wilt" was no exception.
Its transformation into the hymn about overcoming religious oppression began on Jan. 24, 1597. That was the date of the Battle of Turnhout, in which Prince Maurice of Orange defeated the Spanish occupiers of a town in what is now the Netherlands. It appears likely that Dutch Protestants--who were forbidden from practicing their religion under the Catholic King Philip II of Spain--celebrated the victory by borrowing the familiar folk melody and giving it new words. Hence "Wilt heden nu treden" or, loosely translated, "We gather together"--a phrase that itself connoted a heretofore forbidden act: Dutch Protestants joining together in worship. Its first appearance in print was in a 1626 collection of Dutch patriotic songs, "Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck."
So how did"We Gather Together" get from a 17th-century Dutch songbook to 20th-century American churches and schoolrooms?
One answer is Dutch settlers, who brought it with them to the New World, perhaps as early as the 1620s. The hymn stayed alive in the Dutch-American community throughout the centuries, says Emily Brink of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Mich. In 1937, when the Christian Reformed Church in North America--a denomination that began with Dutch immigrants who sang only Psalms--made the then-controversial decision to permit hymns to be sung at church,"We Gather Together" was chosen as the opening hymn in the first hymnal.
Another answer has to do with a Viennese choirmaster by the name of Eduard Kremser, whose arrangement of"We Gather Together" was published in Leipzig, Germany, in 1877. Enter Theodore Baker, an American scholar studying in Leipzig. Baker translated the hymn into English in 1894 as a"prayer of Thanksgiving" to be sung by a choir.
From there it was an easy step to congregational singing....
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