Among those noted as composers of Sunday school, evangelistic and devotional music, no name is better known than that of Robert Lowry.
Upon the death of William B. Bradbury in 1868, Dr. Lowry succeeded as editor of Sunday school song books published by Bigelow & Main. After his first book, entitled "Bright Jewels," appeared, William H. Doane became associated with him on a series of books, among which were "Pure Gold," "Royal Diadems," "Welcome Tidings," "Brightest and Best," "Glad Refrain," "Good as Gold," "Joyful Lays," "Fountain of Song," "Bright Array," and others which attained wide circulation among the churches. And from that time on, for many years, the names of Lowry and Doane were household words in the Sunday Schools of the land.
In early life Dr. Lowry prepared for and entered the ministry of the Baptist denomination, and in the course of his ministerial labors occupied prominent pastorates in New York City, Brooklyn, Plainfield, and other cities, where he was known for his scholarly attainments. For some years during one of his pastorates he occupied the Chair of Letters in the university of which he was a graduate,
and from which institution he received—in 1875—the degree of D.D.
Among the gifts with which he was endowed was a love for music and a talent for composition. Being in touch with the religious movements of the times, and an observer of the trend of events, he early caught Mr. Bradbury’s vision of the possibilities of the new Sunday School music, began writing, and soon entered actively upon his career as one of its most successful composers. From this time forward his activities were divided between pastoral duties, composition and editing.
He was author of both words and music of many of his best known songs. "Shall We Gather at the River?" is justly one of the most beautiful, as it is one of the most famous Sunday School songs ever written. "Where Is My Wandering Boy To-night?" is one of the most useful and celebrated of evangelistic songs, giving expression to the cry of broken-hearted fathers and mothers the world over.
Others having rank among his best loved are: "I Need Thee Every Hour," "One More Day's Work for Jesus," "Savior, Thy Dying Love," "The Mistakes of My Life Have Been Many," "Marching to Zion," "Nothing but the Blood," and "Up from the Grave He Arose."
A touching incident, illustrating how well known and loved is the beautiful hymn, "Shall We Gather at the River?" is related by an American woman writing from Cairo, Egypt, who was allowed to visit the Military Hospital there soon after some wounded men had been brought in. She says:
"The three hours we could stay were full of work for heart and hand. One young soldier from a Highland regiment excited my interest. He had lost a limb, and the doctor said he would not live through the night. I stopped at his side to see if there was anything I could do for him. He lay with his eyes closed, and as his lips moved I caught the words, 'Mother, mother. I dipped my handkerchief in a basin of ice water and bathed his forehead where the fever flush burned. 'Oh, that is good!' he said, opening his eyes. Seeing me bending over him, he caught my hand and kissed it. 'Thank you, lady,' he said, 'it 'minds me o' mother.' I asked him if I could write to his mother. 'No,' he said, 'the surgeon has promised to write, but can you,will you sing to me?' I hesitated a moment and looked around. The gleam on the water of the Nile, as the western rays slanted down, caught my eye and suggested the 'river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.' I began softly to sing the Gospel hymn, 'Shall We Gather at the River?' Eager heads were raised around us to listen more intently, while bass and tenor voices, weak and tremulous, came in on the chorus—
"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.'
"When the song was ended, I looked into the face of the boy—for he was not over twenty—and asked, 'Shall you be there?' 'Yes, I'll be there, through what the Lord Jesus has done for me,' he answered, while a 'light that never was on sea or land' radiated his face. The tears gathered in my eyes as I thought of the mother in her far-off Scottish home, watching and waiting for her soldier boy, who was breathing away his life in an Egyptian hospital. 'Come again, lady, come again,' I heard on all sides as I left the barracks. I shall go, but I shall not find my Scottish laddie, for by to-morrow's reveille he will have crossed the river.”
The following incident regarding "Where Is My Wandering Boy To-night?" is typical of many others that could be related showing how the song has been used, perhaps more than any other, to win back wandering boys.
Chancellor Sims relates that he was once traveling with a man from the West who was on his way to visit his father, whom he had left years before when a boy. There had been trouble between them, and the father had told the son that he could go. In his anger the boy said that he would, and that he would never return. He had gone West and become a wealthy land owner; but he had never written his father and had held anger in his heart all those years. He told how it came about that he was then returning. "A train on which I was traveling became snowed in, and people living nearby made up a load of provisions for the imprisoned passengers. It was discovered that Mr. Sankey was on board, and at the request of the passengers he came out on the platform and sang 'Where Is My Wandering Boy To-night?' That song touched my heart, led me to God, and I am now on my way East to seek reconciliation with my parents."
I had the pleasure of knowing Dr. Lowry but slightly, having met him a few times only; but I loved and sang his songs for many years, and count it an honor to be included in the host of his friends who have long recognized his position as a composer and author of great ability, and who has left a priceless legacy to the cause to which he consecrated his rare gifts.
Dr. Lowry was born in Philadelphia, March 12, 1826, and after a life of distinction as a scholar and minister of the churches he served and of conspicuous service rendered to the ministry of sacred song, he passed away at his home in Plainfield,
New Jersey, November 25, 1899, in the 74th year of his age.
From George C. Stebbins: Reminiscences and Gospel Hymn Stories by Himself. New York: George H. Doran Company, ©1924.
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