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Shall We Gather At the River: Hollywood's Fascination With a Centuries-Old Christian Hymn


A Beloved hymn

SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER is a beautiful Christian hymn that speaks of the saints gathering together in the afterlife. Sometimes the song is known simply as At THE RIVER or BEAUTIFUL RIVER. This hymn was written in 1864 by poet, gospel music composer, and Baptist minister Robert Lowry (1826-1899). It is now in the public domain. Lowry wrote the beloved hymn one afternoon in the midst of the Civil War. He was exhausted from the heat and lay down and began having visions about the crystal river in heaven. He began wondering why so many people wrote about the river of death and decided the focus should be on the river of life and thus this beautiful song came into being. He wondered to himself "Shall we be among the privileged few who stand before the throne singing the praises of the savior?" and "Yes, we'll gather." came to mind.

Yes we shall gather

SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER has been sung for generations during Sunday morning worship services and has been recorded numerous times. During the pandemic in 2020, a group of people got together to sing it with backup from a piano. Celebrities Burl Ives, Willie Nelson, Randy Travis, and Patti Page are among a number of celebrities who have sung their own versions of the tune. Hollywood back in the day seemed to have a fascination with this song as it has been utilized in countless movie soundtracks, especially westerns. Director John Ford admitted that SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER was one of his favorite hymns and he featured in many of his most famous films. The melody is played paradoxically in STAGECOACH (1939), TOBACCO ROAD (1941), MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946), THREE GODFATHERS (1948), WAGON MASTER(1950), twice in THE SEARCHERS (1956), and 7 WOMEN (1966).

Hollywood's fasciantion

You will also hear SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER in THE OREGON TRAIL (1959) MAJOR DUNDEE and CAT BALLOU both in 1965. HANG EM HIGH (1968) THE WILD BUNCH*1969) and JEREMIAH JOHNSON in 1972. The song was also used in the 2013 pastiche western, THE LONE RANGER. In non-westerns you will hear SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER IN HOBSON'S CHOICE (1954), ELMER GANTRY (1960). There was a caricatural rendition of the song with different lyrics used twice in WHO'S MINDING THE MINT? (1967). It was meant to be humorous but some might consider it irreverent. You can also hear SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER in the movie version of THE HANDMAID'S TALE. (1990). The hymn's title is used as the name of an episode on the second season of FALLING SKIES and can be heard during the film A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL. This Christian classic opens the film AIMEE SEMPLE MCPHERSON.

Bible based lyrics

The lyrics to this song come from Revelation chapter 22:1 And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.

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Shall we gather at the river?
Where bright angel feet have trod
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God

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

Soon we'll reach the shining river
Soon our pilgrimage will cease
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace

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

Mocking religion

SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER is a song that warms the hearts of those who trust in Christ and keeps us focused on the blessed hope that He will return for us. Although John Ford used the song in his movies because it was one of his favorite hymns this was not the case in every film. Depending on the context viewers can tell the hymn was used in a manner that could be considered as mocking the faith of the poor. In Japan and Sweeden the melody to this hymn has been purposefully used in songs that were about sex. Even so, each time I catch this beloved hymn in a movie I am watching it always brings tears because I realize that each day I live I am one day closer to the song's reality.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Cheryl E Preston


Cheryl E Preston (author) from Roanoke on June 11, 2021:

Yes it is one of my favorites also.

Nell Rose from England on June 10, 2021:

Such a beautiful hymn, and one of my favorites. Amazing how many films it has featured in, and I had forgotten that there had been a 1990s film of the Handmaids tale.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 08, 2021:

This is an interesting article, and I agree fully with your sentiments. This is a good, old hymn that I have heard many times especially when I was growing up. I agree about Hollywood.

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