In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, millions of Americans in their churches and community celebrations will sing the hymn that has become the de facto anthem of the holiday. “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” reads the opening stanza of the familiar song, a line that suggests the pluralistic and communal spirit Americans associate with Thanksgiving. As Pilgrims and Native Americans once dined together, so the myth goes, Americans of all races, religions, and creeds still unite to celebrate the country that welcomes everyone.
Yet the opening line of “We Gather Together,” seemingly an apt expression of inclusiveness and shared thankfulness, momentarily distracts from the larger, quieter message the hymn contains. The song’s lyrics, as well as the dark history that inspired them, point to the sinister tradition of violence and expulsion that also runs through the nation’s story, present even in that first Thanksgiving observation.
Though many now see it as a quintessentially American creation, “We Gather Together” actually originated from the religious strife of 16th-century Europe. Following the 1597 Battle of Turnhout, where a Dutch army led by Prince Maurice of Orange defeated Spanish occupying forces in an area now part of Belgium, the poet Adrianus Valerius wrote “Wilt Heden nu Treden” to commemorate the victory, setting the words to an old Dutch folk melody. During the occupation, Dutch Protestants had been barred by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain from meeting with one another for worship. So the gathering together that the song celebrated represented not only the end of religious persecution for the Dutch, but also the reestablishment of sectarian uniformity through the removal of heretical outsiders.