He Leadeth Me: O Blessed Thought (The History Behind the Hymns #28) with Daniel Whyte III

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #28

I am your host, Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International. I am one of many Christians who still loves the old hymns of the faith even more than many modern Christian songs. For the past 33 years, my wife and children and I have sung the old hymns during our family devotion time. Over the years we have used an Independent Baptist hymn book, a National Baptist hymn book, and a Southern Baptist hymn book to sing the old hymns of the faith. And we have sung the old hymns of the faith with traditional Methodist churches online. The old hymns of the faith have been a tremendous source of blessing and encouragement to my heart down through the years. The purpose of this podcast is to encourage you to dust off your old hymn book and experience the power and blessing of well-written hymns based upon sound doctrine for the glory of God that will strengthen your faith.

The History Behind the Hymns passage of Scripture is Psalm 23:2-3 which reads: “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.”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from Keith Getty. He said: “There’s no scientific definition. A hymn…is a song of praise to God.”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from Oswald Chambers. He said: “Faith never knows where it is being led, but it loves and knows the One who is leading.”

Our hymn for today is “He Leadeth Me: O Blessed Thought” by Joseph Gilmore. It reads:

He leadeth me! O blessed thought,
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught;
Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
Still ’tis Christ’s hand that 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 or repine;
Content, whatever lot I see,
Since it is Thou that leadest 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 Thou in triumph leadest 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.

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “He Leadeth Me: O Blessed Thought”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

“He Leadeth Me” by American Joseph Gilmore (1834-1918) was birthed out of a particular struggle in American history. This hymn was composed in 1862 during the Civil War, a time of upheaval and insecurity. The author was preaching at First Baptist Church in Philadelphia soon after his ordination.

Dr. Carlton R. Young, The United Methodist Hymnal editor, cites Gilmore’s recollections on the hymn’s formation: “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”.

Subsequently, upon the initiative of Glimore’s wife and without the author’s knowledge, the text appeared in the Boston newspaper Watchman and Reflector under the rather unusual and unexplained pseudonym “Contoocook.” The famous gospel song composer William Bradbury included these words anonymously with his own tune in his collection The Golden Censer. Bradbury is credited with adding the third line to the famous refrain:

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.

Joseph H. Gilmore, the son of Joseph A. Gilmore, governor of New Hampshire, received his education from Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, and Newton Theological Seminary where he taught Hebrew. An ordained Baptist minister, Gilmore became a professor after serving churches in Philadelphia, New Hampshire, and New York. He was also a professor of English at the University of Rochester from 1868-1911. A prolific writer for newspapers and periodicals, Gilmore also authored three books in his academic field: The Art of Expression and Outlines of English and American Literature, as well as a book of poetry, He Leadeth Me, and Other Religious Poems.

Working as his father’s private secretary during the Civil War, he also edited the Concord, New Hampshire Daily Monitor. Gilmore provided further information on the historical context of this hymn:

It was the darkest hour of the Civil War. I did not refer to that fact—that is, I don’t think I did—but it may subconsciously have led me to realize that God’s leadership is the one significant fact in human experience, that it makes no difference how we are led, or whither we are led, so long as we are sure God is leading us. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/l/e/hleademe.htm

Stanza 2 of the hymn may 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”, Gilmore begins: “Sometimes mid scenes of deepest gloom…”

In stanza 3, the poet 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:

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.

Consider the similarity between this sentiment and the first stanza of “When Peace Like a River” by Horatio Spafford: “… whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, / ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”

Or note “Blessed Assurance” by Fanny Crosby, in which the poet says: “Perfect submission, all is at rest, / I in my Savior am happy and blest…“.

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, especially as the place of Jesus’ baptism and a place where Jesus often conducted his ministry, and ultimately the passageway from this life to the next:

And when my task on earth is done,
When by thy grace the victory’s won,
E’en death’s cold wave I will not flee,
Since God through Jordan leadeth me.

As is the case with so many gospel songs, the rhetorical strength of this hymn lies in the almost incessant repetition of a single thought: “He/God leadeth me.” When the five quotations of this idea in the four stanzas are added to the three references in the refrain, the singer will have sung “He/God leadeth me” a total of seventeen times by the time the hymn is concluded!

Gilmore seems to have had a humble nature as a poet and lacked ambition in promoting his own work. After handing the draft of the poem to his wife who sent it to The Watchman and Reflector under a pseudonym, Gilmore thought no more about it. Gilmore notes, “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”.

When the famous musical evangelist Ira D. Sankey, the musician for renowned evangelist Dwight L. Moody, included Bradbury’s version of the hymn in several editions of Sacred Songs and Solos, its fame was assured. The Salvation Army spread its use throughout Britain when they included it in several of their collections.

Though Gilmore wrote other hymns, it is this hurriedly penned text written at age 28 for which he is remembered. The First Baptist Church of Philadelphia was demolished in 1926. Kenneth Osbeck notes, however, that the words to the first stanza of Gilmore’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”.

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “Grace Greater Than Our Sin” by Julia H. Johnston.

Let’s Pray —

Dear friend, this hymn honors God and the Lord Jesus Christ, if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you want to get to know Him today here’s how.

First, accept the fact that you are a sinner, and that you have broken God’s law. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, accept the fact that there is a penalty for sin. The Bible states in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

Third, accept the fact that you are on the road to hell. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 10:28: Also, the Bible states in Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Now this is bad news, but here’s the good news. Jesus Christ said in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can live eternally with Him. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will.

Romans 10:9-13 says, “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. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Pray and ask Him to come into your heart and He will.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again.