Today’s hymn was written by Joseph Henry Gilmore, born on April 29, 1834 and the son of New Hampshire governor Joseph A. Gilmore. Young Joseph attended Brown University where he received a degree in arts and then continued his education at Newton Theological Institution, graduating in 1861.
In March of 1862, Joseph was filling in at the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia for a couple of Sundays. His sermon for the mid-week service of March 26 was taken from the twenty-third Psalm, a passage he had used several times before. However, that night he never got past the phrase “He leadeth me.” “Those words took hold of me as they had never done before, and I saw them in a significance and wondrous beauty of which I had never dreamed,” he would remark later.
It was a dark time in the nation’s history with the Civil War raging, just days before the costly Battle of Shiloh. Although he did not specifically mention the war, he may have subconsciously used the grave situation facing the nation to more fervently emphasize the need for God’s leadership.
At the close of the meeting a few people gathered at the home of Deacon Watson to fellowship. The conversation turned toward a discussion of Joseph’s message and the blessings of God’s leadership. Again, Joseph was inspired and took a blank piece of paper and wrote down some words, handed it to his wife and thought nothing of it again.
In the meantime Joseph worked as his father’s assistant in 1863 and 1864 and also edited the Concord, New Hampshire Daily Monitor. In 1865 he was a candidate for pastor at the Second Baptist Church of Rochester, New York. Entering the chapel, he picked up a hymnal thinking he would see what songs the church normally sang.
Imagine his surprise when the book opened to He Leadeth Me, the hymn he had jotted down and forgotten about three years earlier. Unbeknownst to him, his wife had sent it to The Watchman and Reflector, a gospel magazine published in Boston. The music had been composed by William B. Bradbury in 1864.
He leadeth me, O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
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, over troubled sea,
Still ’tis His hand that leadeth me.
Lord, I would place my hand in Thine,
Nor ever murmur nor repine;
Content, whatever lot I see,
Since ’tis my God 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 added the last two lines of the refrain later, which is how the song is sung today. According to 101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, this hymn has been translated into several different languages, perhaps more so than any other. During World War II, soldiers were surprised to find it was a favorite hymn among the Polynesians of the South Pacific.
The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia was demolished in 1926 and replaced by an office building. In recognition of the song and its author a bronze plaque was placed on one corner of the building (still there today). Inscribed are the first stanza of the hymn, as well as the words: “This was done in recognition of the beauty and fame of this beloved hymn, and in remembrance of its distinguished author.”
Joseph wrote other hymns throughout his life, but none was as highly respected and widely-sung as He Leadeth Me. He pastored several Baptist churches and was a professor at both Newton Seminary and Rochester University. Joseph Henry Gilmore died in Rochester on April 23, 1918.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.