The Songs and Hymns of Robert Lowery
by Wayne S. Walker
Robert Lowry was born in Philadelphia, PA, on Mar. 12, 1826, and educated at Bucknell University where he graduated with high scholastic honors in 1854. Afterwards, he served as a Baptist minister, first at West Chester, PA, near Philadelphia, from 1854 to 1858, then in New York City, NY, from 1859 to 1961, and beginning in 1861 with the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY. Although he always said that his main interest in life was preaching, while at Hanson Place he became quite interested in writing hymns and tunes. In 1867 he took Isaac Watts's hymn "Come We That Love the Lord," added a chorus, provided a tune, and created the gospel song "We're Marching to Zion." In fact, in 1868, the Biglow and Main Publishing Company in New York City, formerly the William B. Bradbury Co., selected Lowry as the music editor for its Sunday school songbooks, succeeding upon the death of his predecessor, another well-known gospel musician who had founded the original firm, William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868).
In this capacity, Lowry provided the 1875 tune for Fanny J. Crosby's hymn "All the Way My Savior Leads Me." Lowry is credited with the publication of over twenty collections and continued to be interested in church music all of his life. It has often been said that the quality of Lowry's hymns did much to improve the cause of church music in this nation during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Moving to Lewisburg, PA, in 1869, Lowry also served as professor of literature at his old alma mater of Bucknell, from which he received his doctorate degree in 1875. That year, he then moved to work with the Park Ave. Baptist Church in Plainfield, NJ, where he remained until his death there on Nov. 25, 1899, at the age of 73.
"Shall We Gather at the River?"
One of Lowry's first hymns describes our hope of being at and seeing that pure river of water of life in the heavenly New Jerusalem. In 1864 Lowry was minister at the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn. That summer there was an epidemic sweeping New York City, and people were dying all over. When Lowry was not busy visiting those in his congregation who were sick, he was burying others who had died. This is why the 38-year old preacher was near exhaustion when he lay down on the couch of his Brooklyn home one hot day in July. While thinking about all the people who were dying, he began to think of the great reunion at the river of life. So he did not stay on his couch long, but soon arose and was busy writing. He left his own account of this event:
"One afternoon in July, 1864, when I was pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, the weather was oppressively hot, and I was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion. I was almost incapable of bodily exertion, and my imagination began to take to itself wins. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness. The imagery of the Apocalypse took the form of a tableau. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river, and the gathering of the saints. My soul seemed to take new life from the celestial outlook. I began to wonder why the hymn-writers had said so much about the 'river of death' and so little about 'the pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb." As I mused the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry, 'Shall we gather?' Then they broke out in a chorus, as an answer of Christian faith, 'Yes, we'll gather.' On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn." Please note that I am simply quoting Mr. Lowry without necessarily agreeing with his usage of the word "pastor."
The song "Shall We Gather At The River?" with both text written and tune (Hanson Place) composed by Lowry was first published in the 1865 Sunday School hymnbook Happy Voices edited by Lowry and William Howard Doane for Biglow and Main. In 1954, even though "Shall We Gather At The River" was not a southern camp meeting song from American folk tradition, Aaron Copland included it in his "Old American Songs" for solo voice, Second Set. It was sung at the funeral of American Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1975, and a portion of it was used in the 1985 Academy Award winning film, Trip to Bountiful. I recall hearing James P. Miller, who was preaching in the gospel meeting at my home congregation when I obeyed the gospel, say that this song was often sung back in the days before indoor baptistries were common whenever people would be taken "down to the river" to be baptized. The song answers several questions that we might ask about this river.
Stanza 1 tells us where we shall gather at the river.
"Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide for ever Flowing by the throne of God?"
This river is located where the angels have trod, and the Bible indicates that the angels dwell in heaven (Matthew 22:30; Mark 12:25). It is located in a place where it will flow forever; while the term "forever" can be used in some contexts to mean age lasting or as long as the earth stands, on other occasions it is clearly used to refer to an eternal existence (John 6:51, Romans 1:25). And it is located by the throne of God, which is clearly in heaven (Hebrews 8:1; Revelation 4:1-2). One hymnbook editor made one of his famous alterations here, changing "by the throne of God" to "from the throne of God" (although NOT in the chorus), apparently because he thought the latter conforms more with the exact language of the Bible. However, I do not see a big difference here, at least enough to make such a change necessary. If we say that the Ohio River flows FROM Pittsburgh, PA, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge, then it certainly flows BY portions of Pittsburgh, given that the word "by" can mean "near."
Stanza 2 tells us how long we shall gather at the river.
"On the margin of the river, Washing up its silver spray,
We will walk and worship ever, All the happy, golden day."
"On the margin of the river" would be along the sides of the river, where John pictures God's servants serving Him (Revelation 22:2-5). Part of that service evidently involves worship, because those who surround the throne of God are pictured as worshipping Him (Revelation 4:3-11). And this worship will continue "ever, All the happy, golden day," because it will occur in a place where we shall have eternal life and there will be no death (I John 2.25; Revelation 21:4).
Stanza 3 tells us why we shall gather at the river.
"Ere we reach the shining river, Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver, And provide a robe and crown."
Even before we reach the shining river, we shall lay every burden down in death and be granted rest from our labors (Revelation 14:13). It is God's purpose through death and ultimately through the resurrection and granting eternal life in heaven to deliver us finally and completely from all that is evil (Galatians 1:4; II Peter 2:9). Then at the end of time, He will provide a robe and a crown for the faithful (James 1:12, Revelation 2:10).
Stanza 4 tells us when we shall gather at the river.
"Soon we'll reach the silver river, Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver With the melody of peace."
This stanza raises the question that brethren have discussed for years as to whether the spirits of the righteous dead go directly to heaven or to the Hadean realm to await the resurrection and judgment. The scriptures still lead me to the conclusion that the spirits of the righteous dead go to Hades, but the stanza does not necessarily contradict that conclusion. The fact is that the vast majority of people will die because it is so appointed (Hebrews 9:27). In relative terms, this will occur "soon" as opposed to later, but the "river of death" becomes the gateway through which we shall eventually reach "the silver river." In this life we are but pilgrims (I Peter 2:11); but at death, our pilgrimage will cease. And even the souls of the righteous dead in Hades, awaiting the resurrection and judgment, will be experiencing the melody of peace and comfort (Luke 16:19-25).
Stanza 5 tells us who shall gather at the river.
"At the smiling of the river, Mirror of the Savior's face,
Saints whom death will never sever Lift their songs of saving grace."
Since this river is mirror of the Savior's face, we know that the Savior will be there and we shall see Him as He is (I John 3:1-3). Also, the saints or holy ones, who under the new covenant are those who make up the Lord's church, will be there (I Corinthians 1:1-2). And these shall join with the redeemed of all ages to "lift their songs of saving grace" (Revelation 7:9-17),
The first stanza having asked the question, "Shall we gather at the river," which the other stanza then go on to describe, the chorus answers:
"Yes, we'll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,
Gather with the saints at the river That flows by the throne of God."
With the joyful hope of eternity with God, the Savior, and the saints of all ages expressed in this song, may we ever live so that we can give an affirmative answer to that question, "Shall We Gather At The River?"
"Something For Jesus"
A hymn which reminds us of what the Lord requires of us is "Something for Jesus. The text was written by Sylvanus Dryden Phelps, who was born at Suffield, CN, on May 15, 1816, and educated at the Connecticut Literary Institute, Brown University, from which he graduaged in 1844, and Yale Divinity School. His son, William Lyon Phelps, became a famous author and professor of English Literature at Yale. While still in college, Sylvanus began producing hymns, the first of which were temperance songs for children. Becoming a Baptist minister, he served the First Baptist Church of New Haven, CN, for 28 years, from 1846 to 1874.
This hymn was completed in 1862 and first appeared, beginning, "Something, my God, for Thee," unsigned two years later in the Mar. 17, 1864, issue of the Boston, MA, magazine Watchman and Reflector. It was apparently rewritten in its present form around 1870 by the author himself at the request of Lowry, who had seen the poem and asked that it be submitted as a hymn, composed the tune (Something for Thee) and included the song in his 1871 collection Pure Gold for the Sunday School (sometimes the date of 1872 is given), which he edited for Biglow and Main Publishers with WIlliam Howard Doane. In 1874 Phelps moved to work with the Jefferson St. Baptist Church in Providence, RI, but resigned two years later to become editor of the religious journal, The Christian Secretary.
During his later life, Phelps published several books of both poetry and prose. The most famous was his work The Holy Land, with Glimpses of Europe and Egypt, a Year's Tour, which resulted from his extensive travels and ran through nine printings. On his seventieth birthday, he received a letter from Lowry with the following message: "It is worth living seventy years even if nothing comes of it but one such hymn as 'Savior, Thy Dying Love.' Happy is the man who can produce one song which the world will keep on singing after its author shall have passed away. May the tuneful harp preserve its strings for many a long year yet, and the last note reach us only when it is time for the singer to take his place in the heavenly choir." Phelps died some nine years later in New Haven, CN, on Nov. 23, 1895. The song is a meditation on what Jesus has done for us and what we need to do for Him.
Stanza 1 tells us that the supreme sacrifice of Christ suggests a like sacrifice on our part.
"Savior, Thy dying love Thou gavest me,
Nor should I ought withhold, Dear Lord, from Thee;
In love my soul would bow, My heart fulfill its vow,
Some offering bring Thee now, Something for Thee."
Jesus showed His love for us by laying down His life for us (I John 3:16). Therefore, we should bown down before Him (Philippians 2:10). And as Jesus gave His life for us, we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices for Him (Romans 12:1-2).
Stanza 2 tells us that our faith must be fixed on Jesus who is our advocate with the Father.
"At the blest mercy seat, Pleading for me,
My feeble faith looks up, Jesus, to Thee:
Help me the cross to bear, Thy wondrous love to share,
Some song to raise, or prayer, Something for Thee."
We should certainly want to offer our all to Him who is at the right hand of God making intercession for us (Romans 8:34). In order to do this, our faith must look up unto Him who is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). If we do this, He will help us to bear our cross for Him (Matthew 16:24).
Stanza 3 tells us that we must look to Christ for strength that we might do God's will.
"Give me a faithful heart -- Likeness to Thee --
That each departing day Henceforth may see
Some work of love begun, Some deed of kindness done,
Some wanderer sought and won, Something for Thee."
The Lord wants our hearts to be faithful to Him (Revelation 2:10). Being faithful means having the likeness or image of Christ in our lives (II Corinthians 3:18). Our faith is useless if it is not one that works through love (Galatians 5:6; I Thessalonians 1:3).
Stanza 4 tells us that in all things we must follow the example of our Savior.
"Lord, I would follow Thee In all the way
Thy weary feet have trod, Yes, if I may;
Help me the news to bear, All Thy fair graces wear,
Close watching unto prayer--Something for Thee."
We should have the attitude that we want to follow Jesus (Luke 9:57). Following Jesus means that we look to the example that He left us (I Peter 2:21-23). In order to do this, we need to be close watching unto prayer (Ephesians 6:18).
Stanza 5 tells us that the service which we render unto Christ will result in eternal life.
"All that I am and have -- Thy gifts so free --
In joy, in grief, through life, Dear Lord, for Thee!
And when Thy face I see, My ransomed soul shall be
Through all eternity Something for Thee."
Everything that we are and have are gifts from above (James 1:17). Someday, those who follow Christ have the hope of seeing His face (I John 3:1-2). But our reward in eternity will depend in part on how we have served both God and our fellowman in this life (Matthew 25:34-40).
The original poem by Phelps is quite different from the present text:
"Something, my God, for Thee, Something for Thee:
That each day's setting sun may bring Some penitential offering;
In Thy dear name some kindness done; In Thy dear love some wanderer won;
Some trial meekly borne for Thee, Dear Lord, for Thee."
"Something, my God, for Thee, Something for Thee:
That to Thy gracious throne may rise Sweet incense from some sacrifice --
Uplifted eyes undimmed by tears, Uplifted faith unstained by fears,
Hailing each joy as light from Thee, Dear Lord, from Thee."
"Something, my God, for Thee, Something for Thee:
For the great love that Thou hast given, For the great hope of Thee and heaven.
My soul! her first allegiance brings, And upward plumes her heavenward wings,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee."
Despite its inclusion in nearly every standard hymnbook used among brethren for the last 100 years or so, my experience has been that this hymn is woefully underused. When originally published, it had the heading, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" (Acts 9:6). The spiritual longings which it expresses are valid for all earnest souls. Surely, there is nothing better to which we can aspire in this life than to offer our entire lives as "Something For Jesus."
A song which reminds us of the fact that Jesus, who was crucified, was also raised form the grave, is "Christ Arose." The text often identified by its first line, "Low in the Grave He Lay," was written and the tune (He Arose) was composed both in 1874 after Lowry had moved to preach in Lewisburg, PA, where he also served as Professor at Bucknell. During the spring of that year, he was having his evening devotions and was impressed with the events associated with Christ's resurrection. Soon he found himself in the parlor of his home and, in a very spontaneous fashion, there came forth from his thoughts the words and music for this song. It was first published the following year in a Sunday school songbook Brightest and Best of which he was co-editor with William Howard Doane (1832-1915). This song emphasizes both the facts and the importance of the resurrection of Christ.
Stanza #1 talks about how Christ lay in the tomb waiting the resurrection day.
"Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!"
The Bible records the burial of Jesus in Joseph's new tomb (Matthew 27:57-61). However, this was only a waiting period, because even the Old Testament had prophesied that the Messiah would be raisd from the dead (Psalms 16:9-11; cf. Acts 2:29-31). And even Jesus Himself had often predicted His own resurrection (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19).
Stanza #2 tells about how preparations were made to keep Christ's body in the tomb.
"Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!"
The Jewish leaders were afraid that the disciples would steal the body, so they asked Pilate to set a guard and seal the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). They remembered His predictions of a resurrection and wanted to have all their bases covered (Matthew 12:38-40). But, of course, all their preparations were in vain, and the very thing which they sought to prevent is what they eventually claimed happened (Matthew 28:11-15).
Stanza 3 speaks of how Christ came forth from the grave.
"Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!"
The simple fact is that after three days in the tomb, Jesus arose just as He said that He would (Matthew 28:1-2). Following His resurrection, He appeared to a number of people to show by many infallible proofs that He was indeed alive again (Acts 1:1-3; I Corinthians 15:3-8). And the rest of the New Testament teaches us to remember Christ's resurrection because it declared Him to be the divine Son of God (Romans 1:3-4; II Timothy 2:8).
Sometimes, song leaders may choose to have the congregation sing all three stanzas one right after another and then the chorus which triumphantly declares,
"Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o'er His foes!
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
Hallelujah! Christ arose!"
The resurrection of Christ from the dead is recorded in the scriptures not as some kind of allegory but as an actual event: Luke 24:6-8). And it is presented in the scripture as the basis for our hope (I Peter 1:3-4). Therefore, we can rejoice and have hope because of the fact that "Christ Arose."
Nothing but the Blood of Jesus"
A song which emphasizes the fact that we have redemption only through the blood of Christ is "Nothing But The Blood of Jesus." It was first published in the 1876 Gospel Music which Lowry co-edited with William Howard Doane (1832-1915). Many songbooks have only three or four stanzas, but Lowry actually wrote six! The song reminds us how important the blood of Jesus Christ is to us.
Stanza 1 talks about its power to take away sin.
"What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
Every responsible human being has to deal with the problem of sin (Romans 3:23). This sin needs to be washed away (Acts 22:16). Only the blood of Jesus can make us whole again (Mark 2:17).
Stanza 2 talks about its power to provide pardon.
"For my pardon, this I see, Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
For my cleansing this my plea, Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
When we sin, we need pardon (Exodus 34:9). Not only do we need pardon, we need to see what can bring that pardon (Hebrews 2:9). And what we see is that only the blood of Jesus can cleanse us from sin (I John 1:7).
Stanza 3 talks about its power to atone.
"Nothing can for sin atone, Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
Naught of good that I have done, Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
The blood of goats and calves cannot take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). Naught of good that we might do can atone for our sins (Titus 3:5). Yet, to take away sin, something is needed to atone for it, and it is the death of Christ by which He shed His blood for us (Romans 5:8-11).
Stanza 4 talks about its power to bring righteousness.
"This is all my hope and peace, Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
This is all my righteousness, Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
Because of what Jesus did for us we can have hope (Colossians 1:27). Because of what Jesus did for us we can have peace (Ephesians 2:14-17). And because of what Jesus did for us we can have righteousness (Philippians 3:9).
Stanza 5 talks about its power to help us overcome.
"Now by this I'll overcome--Nothing but the blood of Jesus,
Now by this I'll reach my home--Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
God wants us to overcome (I John 5:4). God wants us to reach our home (Colossians 1:5). And to make this possible, Jesus shed His blood for our redemption (Matthew 26:28).
Stanza 6 talks about its power to produce joy in our lives.
"Glory! Glory! This I sing-- Nothing but the blood of Jesus,
All my praise for this I bring--Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
We should give glory to the Lord (Revelation 1:6). We should sing to Him with thanks in our hearts (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). And we should praise Him because He has washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9-14).
"Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin" (Hebrews 9:22). The chorus chorus helps us to understand the importance of Christ's blood to our salvation.
"Oh! precious is the flow That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus."
This can serve as a good invitation song, to encourage those who need to respond to the gospel call to come for cleansing in the blood of Christ upon their compliance with His terms of pardon revealed in the scripture. It can also serve as a hymn of praise to the Lord on the part of Christians for the blessings that we have as a result of the blood of Jesus. But whenever we sing the song, we need to remember that insofar as atonement for our sins is concerned, our salvation is grounded upon "Nothing But the Blood of Jesus."
"I Need Thee Every Hour"
An often-sung hymn which expresses the idea of needing the Lord, especially in prayer, is "I Need Thee Every Hour." The text was written by Mrs. Annie Sherwood Hawks, who was born at Hoosick, a tiny town in upstate New York, on May 28, 1836, to Marvin and Carolyn Bradt Sherwood. As a child, she loved poetry and at a very early age displayed a gift for writing verse. Beginning her career as a poet while still in grammar school, by age 14 she was contributing regularly to various newspapers. In 1859, at the age of 24, she married Charles Hawks, and the couple moved to Brooklyn, NY,
There, the new Mrs. Hawks became a member of the Hanson Place Baptist Church, where the minister just happened to be Robert Lowry. Lowry. He encouraged her to continue her poetic efforts. The Hawks had three children, and Annie often produced hymns out of her daily experiences as an ordinary housewife and mother. One bright June morning in 1872, she was busy with her usual household chores when she was suddenly struck with a consciousness of the Lord's nearness and immediately penned these words to express her joy at the constant companionship of her Master in her everyday activities. Afterward, she showed them to Mr. Lowry, who composed the tune (Need) added the chorus.
The hymn first appeared later that year in a small collection of hymns prepared for the National Baptist Sunday School Convention held at Cincinnati, OH, and won almost universal acceptance. In 1888, sixteen years later, Mrs. Hawks suffered the death of her husband. Some time afterwards, she wrote of that event, "I did not understand at first why this hymn had touched the great throbbing heart of humanity. It was not until long years after...that I understood something of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out." Following the death of her husband, Annie spent her remaining years with her daughter and son-in-law at Bennington, VT, where she died on Jan. 3, 1919, at the age of 83. The thought of the hymn is quite simple and requires little explanation.
According to stanza 1, we need the Lord because only His voice can bring peace.
"I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford."
He is a gracious Lord (Psalms 86:15). He graciously speaks to us, figuratively, with a tender voice (John 5:25). And that voice brings peace so that those who truly trust in the Lord and call on Him can have the peace of God that passes all understanding (Philippians 4:4-7).
According to stanza 2, we need the Lord in times of temptation.
"I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby;
Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh."
We should want the Lord to stay by us at all times, and He has promised that He will do so (Hebrews 13:5-6). And as He stays by us, He will help us to bear our temptations and provide for all our spiritual needs (I Corinthians 10:12-13). But if we want Him to stay by us and help in our temptations, we must continue to draw near to Him (Hebrews 10:22; James 4:8).
According to stanza 3, we need the Lord to abide with us in both joy and pain
"I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide, or life is in vain."
Life is filled with its share of both happiness and sorrow (Philippians 4:11-12). But whatever happens, we should want the Lord to abide with us (John 15:4-5). And regardless of what does happen, if the Lord does not abide with us, the our lives are vain (I Corinthians 15:12-19).
According to stanza 4, we need the Lord to help us know and do His will
"I need Thee every hour; teach me Thy will;
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill."
God wants us to know His will (John 7:17). He has made many exceedingly great and precious promises to us (II Peter 1:3-4). If we strive to do His will, He will fulfill those promises in us (Philippians 1:6).
According to stanza 5, we need the Lord in order that we might fully belong to Him
"I need Thee every hour, most Holy One;
O make me Thine indeed, Thou blessèd Son."
He is the Holy One (Mark 1:24; Acts 3:14). Therefore, we should want to be made His (I Corinthians 3:21-23). And by being His, who is the Blessed Son, we in fact belong to God (I John 5:11).
Lowry's chorus provides a fitting conclusion to Mrs. Hawks' observations, emphasizing the fact that we need the Lord to bless us in this life.
"I need Thee, O I need Thee; Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee.
This song is frequently sung before prayer because it reminds me that when I talk to God, whether in peace and happiness or in tribulation and grief, I should humbly tell Him, "I Need Thee Every Hour."
Robert Lowry was an important figure in the latter part of the nineteenth century to the development of the gospel song. Many of the hymns which he produced as well as the tunes which he provided for the hymns of others are still loved and used even today. We owe a debt of gratitude to him and so many others of his day who have enriched our garden of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and enabled us to teach and admonish one another even as we express our praise and devotion to our Lord musically.