Sometime around the 16th century, We Gather Together (“Wilt heden nu treden”) was written by an unknown author as a political song celebrating the freedom of the Netherlands from Spanish rule. It was first published by poet, civil servant and city council member Adrian Valeirus (c. 1575–1625) in his collection of folk poems and melodies on the Dutch Wars, Nederlandtsch Gedenckclanck.
In 1894, musicologist Theodore Baker translated the original Dutch text into English, titling it Prayer of Thanksgiving. Paired with the tune Kremser, a 16th century Dutch folk melody (“Ey, wilder den wilt”), the hymn rose in popularity in United States hymnals during both World Wars thanks to its nationalistic theme.
However, J. Archer Gibson, a Presbyterian organist in New York City who loved the tune Kremser, thought We Gather Together’s text was “militaristic and unchristian.” So in 1902, he approached fellow church member and hymn writer Julia C. Cory and asked her to pen a new text for the familiar Thanksgiving tune. Cory spent two weeks working on the text and We Praise Thee, O God debuted during the Thanksgiving Day services at Brick Presbyterian Church and at Church of the Covenant, both in New York City, that same year. The hymn quickly became popular and was first published in Hymns of the Living Church (1910).
Gibson’s concerns about We Gather Together’s political past and nationalistic themes are good reasons to use the text We Praise Thee, O God, but I also prefer its brighter sentiments and more modern language. Additionally, We Praise Thee, O God uses the politically correct phrase “God of our fathers and mothers” (after all, it was written by a woman 🙂 ) and, unlike We Gather Together, the “Thees and Thous” in the text can easily be removed without destroying the poetic structure:
We praise you, O God, our Redeemer, Creator;
in grateful devotion our tribute we bring;
we lay it before you; we kneel and adore you;
we bless your holy name: glad praises we sing.
We worship you, God of our fathers and mothers;
through life’s storm and tempest our guide you have been;
when perils o’ertake us, you never forsake us,
and with your help, O Lord, our battles we win.
With voices united our praises we offer,
our songs of thanksgiving to you we now raise;
your strong arm will guide us, our God is beside us,
to you, our great Redeemer, forever be praise!
After Julia Cory finished We Praise Thee, O God, her father, who was an architect, Sunday school superintendent and amateur hymnologist, asked Julia to write an additional verse for the Christmas season. The added verse may not be the quality of the original ones but it’s still a beautiful sentiment to give thanks at Christmas and an extra bonus to using this hymn:
Thy love Thou didst show us, Thine only Son sending,
Who came as a Babe and whose bed was a stall,
His blest life he gave us and then died to save us;
We praise Thee, O Lord, for Thy gift to us all.