Born MARCH 12, 1826
When the position for music editor opened at the Biglow Publishing Company in 1868, God moved Pastor Robert Lowry into the vacancy. Like Joshua replacing Moses as Israel’s leader, Robert followed the talented William Bradbury in advancing the role of gospel hymns in America.
ANSWERING THE CALL
The Philadelphia-born Robert Lowry surrender-ed his life to Jesus when he was 17. He became an active member of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. In 1848, Robert attended Bucknell University to prepare for a preaching ministry. He graduated in 1854 and began pastoring.
In the years that followed, he led Baptist churches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. He was a very caring shepherd. He skillfully delivered God’s word in ways that connected with his listeners. Robert enjoyed the study of hymns and penned a few. He didn’t anticipate the contributions to Christian music he would eventually make.
A NEW ASSIGNMENTIn 1868, when the Biglow Publishing Company chose Robert to replace the deceased William Bradbury as music editor, Robert began saturating himself in the study of music. In the years that followed, he oversaw the completion of over 20 different hymnals. He co-edited many of them with William Howard Doane, including “Pure Gold,” which sold a million copies.
Each song Robert wrote was one more sermon presenting Christian truths. His songs (some for which he wrote only the music) have stood the test of time, still being sung in churches around the world. Hollywood used Robert’s hymns even more than they did the songs of his fellow 19th Century hymn writer, Elisha Hoffman.
Below are the best of Mr. Lowry’s songs still sung today. The title and year they were first published is followed by how they were written and/or the scriptural truths that keeps them popular among Christians.
“SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER?” 1864
On a sweltering July day, an exhausted Robert tried resting. His mind wandered to scenes described in the book of Revelation. He dwelt on the final chapter of the last book of the Bible. He envisioned the image of a river of clear water flowing from God’s throne.
He’d heard plenty of conversations about the “river of death.” Why not, he wondered, talk more about God’s river of life? The question “Shall we gather at the river?” popped into his mind. Then the obvious answer, “Yes, we’ll gather at the river… that flows from the throne of God.”
Hollywood has a long history of using “Shall We Gather At the River.” It appeared in the following westerns: Stagecoach (1939); The Searchers (1956); Major Dundee (1965); The Wild Bunch (1969); and Little Big Man (1970). It also represented Christianity in the non-western films The Red Pony (1949); Elmer Gantry (1960); Spencer’s Mountain (1963); A Trip to Bountiful (1985); and The Handmaid’s Tale (1990).
You can listen to renditions of “Shall We Gather at the River” on YouTube by Buddy Greene, Take 6, and others at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=shall+we+gather+at+the+river+hymn&oq=shall+we+gather+&gs_l=youtube.1.1.0l10.4480.9448.0.117188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.1169.1j8.9.0…0.0…1ac.1.dPIN7zbNNKU.
“CHRIST AROSE!” 1874
The New Testament passage that begins with “He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:6-8) stirred something inside Robert one day. He walked into the parlor of his home and sat at the pump organ, feeling music and words rising to the surface.
The first verse introduces the somber setting: “Low in the grave He lay— Jesus, my Savior! Waiting the coming day— Jesus my Lord!” Then the chorus bursts with vigorous joy: “Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty triumph o’er His foes.” The chorus crescendos with a shout: “Hallelujah! Christ arose!” This great Easter hymn may hold the record as the Christian song with the most exclamation marks.
You can hear various renditions of “Christ Arose!” on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Christ+Arose%21&oq=Christ+Arose%21&gs_l=youtube.12..0l10.69236.72843.0.755220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.743.5j4.9.0…0.0…1ac.1.s28QYo2SBC4.
“NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD” 1876
This hymn works well as a New Testament twin to David’s prayer of repentance, Psalm 51.
I see in the song’s first verse the two great aspects of God’s forgiveness: the cleansing of the heart of the transgressor and the purging of the offense from one’s Heavenly record. It runs parallel with Psalm 51:1: “Have mercy upon me O God, according to Your lovingkind-ness… Blot out my transgressions” (NKJV).
Verse two continues with “For my pardon, this I see, Nothing but the blood of Jesus; For my cleansing this my plea, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Verse three clarifies that only Jesus’ blood can cover our sin: “Nothing can for sin atone, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Verse four anchors all future sense of forgive-ness on the reality of the blood’s cleansing power: “This is all my hope and peace, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Then the chorus: “Oh! precious is the flow, That makes me white as snow; No other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Again, it seems to echo David’s psalm of repentance: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).
The hymn appears on the film Second Chance (2006). Listen to renditions of “Nothing but the Blood” on YouTube by Hillsong United, Jars of Clay, BeBe Winans, and others: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Nothing+but+the+Blood+of+Jesus&oq=Nothing+but+the+Blood+of+Jesus&gs_l=youtube.12..0l10.4064.6842.0.11522.214.171.124.126.96.36.199.247.0j2.2.0…0.0…1ac.1.HTiIP83GcDc.
Robert Lowry added music to the words of Isaac Watts for “Marching to Zion” (1867). It was used in the movie Something to Sing About (2000). YouTube versions are sung by the Gaither Homecoming Friends among others at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%22Marching+to+Zion%22&oq=%22Marching+to+Zion%22&gs_l=youtube.12…0.0.0.36188.8.131.52.0.0.0.0.0..0.0…0.0…1ac.
When he was her pastor, Robert wrote music for Annie Hawk’s hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour” (1872). The song was part of the movie, The R.M. (2003). You can hear Fernando Ortega among others sing it on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=i+need+thee+every+hour&oq=i+need+thee+every+hour&gs_l=youtube-reduced.1.0.0l4.61635.66399.0.688184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.1200.3j3j3.9.0…0.0…1ac.1.f3X7JRzrgt0.
Between “Christ Arose!” and “Nothing But the Blood,” Mr. Lowry published “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” (1875). It was one of the many times he added music to lyrics by Fanny Crosby. Hear “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” sung by Rich Mullins among others at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=all+the+way+my+savior+leads+me+hymn&oq=all+the+way+my+savior+leads+me&gs_l=youtube-reduced.1.2.0l4.28836.58478.0.61718.104.22.168.22.214.171.1247.7119.2j30j9j1.42.0…0.0…1ac.1.j3tbO9jEWHU.
After serving God for over 55 years, most of them presenting scripture in sermons and songs, Robert Lowry heard music of another kind. He passed from this life on November 25, 1899.
LET ME KNOW: How has Robert’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
Morgan, Robert. Then Sings My Soul. Vols 1 and 2. Nashville. TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003.
Osbeck, Kenneth. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1985.
- Peterson, William J. and Ardyth. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
- “Robert Lowry” accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.hymnary.org/person/Lowry_R.
- “Robert Lowry (II)” motion picture soundtrack information accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1177979/.