Hymns of Hope: He Leadeth Me
The hymn “He Leadeth Me” was birthed out of a particular struggle in American history, it was composed in 1862 during the Civil War, a time of great upheaval and insecurity. The author, Pastor Joseph Gilmore, was preaching at First Baptist Church in Philadelphia only shortly after his ordination. As war raged throughout the country, Joseph longed for people to turn their eyes off of the war and look to Jesus. His chosen text for that week was Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul,
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me;
Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies,
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Joseph describes what happened as he prepared to encourage the people through this passage of Scripture: “I set out to give the people an exposition of the 23rd Psalm, which I had given before on three or four occasions. But this time I did not get further than the words ‘He Leadeth Me.’ Psalm 23:2, ‘He leadeth me beside the still waters,’ became the theme of the song.” It was the darkest hour of the war as Joseph set his pen to write the following words:
He leadeth me! O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort frought!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me!
He leadeth me, He leadeth me,
By His own hand He leadeth me;
His faithful follower I would be,
For by His hand he leadeth me.
Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom,
sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom,
by waters still, o’er troubled sea,
still ’tis His hand that leadeth me.
Lord, I would clasp Thy hand in mine,
Nor ever murmur nor repine,
Content, whatever lot I see,
Since ’tis Thy hand that leadeth me!
And when my task on earth is done,
When, by Thy grace, the vict’ry’s won,
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
Since God through Jordan leadeth me!
Joseph’s father was the Governor of New Hampshire, while working as his private secretary Joseph also edited the Concord, New Hampshire Daily Monitor. This experience no doubt provided him with up to date information on current events. As bits of information poured in, I am sure he felt the feelings of hopelessness and unrest that often accompany war. In the midst of the bleakness, it was his desire to remind others that there is hope. God is the One who leads us and following Him is, in Joseph’s own words: “…the one significant human experience. It makes no difference how we are led, or wither we are led, so long as God is leading us.”
The second verse of the hymn seems to suggest the ethos of the national crisis. Drawing on Psalm 23:4a, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”, Joseph begins with: “Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom…” In the third verse, he offers a particular theological interpretation of Psalm 23:4b: “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” In doing so, he reflects on the concept of complete submission to God’s will found in many gospel songs of this era. Psalm 23:6, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever”, provides a basis for the final stanza of the hymn, drawing upon the familiar image of the Jordan River cited throughout Scripture and ultimately the passageway from this life to the next.
Three years later while preaching at another church, Joseph opened a hymn book to find his words set to music. He had handed the draft of the poem to his wife, who had then sent it to “The Watchman and Reflector” under a pseudonym, he had thought no more of it since. Now, however, here it was. Joseph said, “Three years later I went to Rochester, New York, to preach as a candidate before the Second Baptist Church. Upon entering the chapel, I took up a hymnbook, thinking, ‘I wonder what they sing.’ The book opened up at ’He Leadeth Me,’ and that was the first time I knew that my hymn had found a place among the songs of the church”
Though Joseph wrote other hymns, it is this hurriedly penned text written at the age of twenty-eight for which he is remembered. The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia was demolished in 1926 but the words to the first stanza of Joseph’s hymn appear on a bronze tablet on the large office building that replaced the church with the inscription: “In recognition of the beauty and fame of this beloved hymn, and in remembrance of its distinguished author”
As wars continue raging on in our world today, may we be comforted by remembering that in every circumstance and situation, God will lead us. All throughout history God has been faithful to lead His children and He is just as faithful to do so today. In times of war, in times of uncertainty, when the future is bleak, God still leads us, and wherever He leads, He always provides strength for the journey.