Down to the River to Pray
Today’s traditional American gospel song, “Down to the River to Pray” was first published in 1867, titled ‘The Good Old Way’. In 1880, another version of the song was published titled ‘Come, Let Us All Go Down’. It has also been described as a Christian folk hymn, African-American spiritual, Appalachian song, and Southern gospel song.
The phrase “in the river” is significant, because it was sung at outdoor baptisms. Baptism is a public profession of faith in Christ and symbolizes the death of your old, sinful nature and your new walk with God through salvation. Baptism follows salvation ... you are baptized because you are saved, not to get saved. Mark 1:8 tells us: “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.” This passage is saying that man baptizes with water; it is Jesus Who gives us the Holy Ghost at salvation. See also Matthew 3:11.
Going down to the river to pray speaks to preparing oneself for Baptism and being immersed in the river; studying refers to studying the Bible (the good old way); “starry crown” and “robe and crown” refer to the heavenly reward after death. The song also invites others (brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sinners) to come and follow Christ and then be baptized to demonstrate their faith in the putting away of sins and expectancy of the resurrection.
Romans 3:23 - “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” Romans 6:23 - “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: 9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Romans 10:9-10 – “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. 10 For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Romans 6:4-5 – “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:"
The simple hymn lyrics are about beginning a new life with Christ and sharing that new life with others; and how we should study, pray and seek the Lord, resulting in eternal rewards. “As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way, and who shall wear that robe and crown? Good Lord, show me the way! Oh, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, let's go down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way, and who shall wear the starry crown? Good Lord, show me the way! Oh sinners, let’s go down, come on down to the river to pray!”