We Gather Together
I have always thought of "We Gather Together" as a Thanksgiving Day hymn –– a harvest festival hymn. However, when I learned its history, I wondered if I had misread it –– perhaps I was the only person who thought of it that way. So I Googled it and found that others associate it with Thanksgiving Day too. But its origins are hardly harvest festival. And while it is a hymn of praise to God for blessings received, the words "Thanks" and "Thanksgiving" appear nowhere in it verses.
The story begins with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He had been born in the Netherlands (Holland), and his empire included the Netherlands. Charles and his son, King Philip II, considered it their duty to eradicate Protestantism, which had established a strong foothold in the Netherlands.
In 1556 (two years before his death), Charles gave Philip II rule over Spain and the Low Countries (Holland and Belgium).
In 1566, Dutch Protestants staged a minor rebellion in which they stormed Catholic churches to destroy statues, which they considered to be idolatrous. Philip responded by sending the Duke of Alba (Don Fernando Alvarez de Toledo y Pimentel) to restore order.
The Duke proved both decisive and violent. He executed a number of Dutch Protestants for fomenting rebellion, and even executed Catholics who had been guilty of tolerating Protestantism. This provoked further rebellion, to which the Duke responded by executing many more people.
In 1568, William of Orange, a Protestant leader, led a revolt against the Duke of Alba in the hope of ridding the Low Countries of this scourge and setting the stage for reconciliation with Philip. However, his effort failed.
Heavy taxation led to further rebellion. Philip replaced the Duke of Alba with Luis de Requesens, who took a more moderate approach. However, Spain had overextended itself and was unable to pay its soldiers, which led to mutiny and chaos. In 1576, Spanish soldiers captured Antwerp and killed 8,000 citizens.
Then in 1585, Spanish soldiers re-captured Antwerp, executing large numbers of people and sending many thousands into exile.
But Spain was weakened by the loss of many ships in a disastrous campaign against England in 1588, and that led to a period of relative peace in Holland –– a peace that ushered in Holland's Golden Age.
This hymn was written near the end of the 16th century (some say 1597) to acknowledge that turbulent past and to look to a better future:
"We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing" acknowledges their need –– a need made apparent by the suffering they had undergone.
"He chastens" alludes to the events just past.
"The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing" alludes to the violence of the Spanish soldiers –– a violence now stilled.
"He forgets not his own" is a tribute of praise to God for allowing them to emerge triumphant from their turbulent history.
The hymn was published in Nederlandtsche Gedenckclanck in Haarlem in 1625.
Edward Kremser discovered it in 1877, translated it into Latin, and published it in Vienna in 1877. The hymn tune usually associated with this hymn, Kremser, is named in his honor.
In 1894, Theodore Baker translated the hymn into English for his employer, G. Shirmer, Inc., a major New York music publishing house.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan