For several weeks the ‘continuous track’ of the lectionary Old Testament readings has been following Moses and the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness. This Sunday’s reading Deuteronomy 34:1-12 tells of Mose’s death and how just before he died he was given sight of the Promised Land. So it seems appropriate to sing this week’s Hymn of the Week as a sort of retrospective to the Exodus journey. (The final verse anticipates next week’s lectionary reading, as Joshua leads the Israelites across the River Jordan.)
The hymn is based on the Welsh hymn Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch by William Williams (1717-91). Williams had a considerable career as evangelist and hymn writer. The New Methodist Hymn-Book Illustrated tells his story:
William Williams, ‘the sweet singer of wales,’ was born at Pantycelyn in 1717. He became a deacon in the Established Church, and served a s acurate for two years, but never took priest’s orders. He was a friend of Daniel Rowland, Whitfield and the Countess of Huntingdon’; travelled as an evangelist over Wales, and was very popular as a preacher. For forty-three years he travelled on an average 2,230 miles a year. Howell Harris challenged the Welsh Calvinistic preachers to write better hymns than those they possessed. This stirred Williams to his work… Dr Elvet Lewis says, ‘What Paul Gerhardt has been to Germany, what Isaac Watts has been to England, that an more has William Williams, of Pantycelyn, been to Wales. he died at Pantycelyn on January 11, 1791.
The Welsh original of five verses (Which can be found here, with a literal English translation) was first published in 1745. Revd Peter Williams of Carmarthen, who had been converted after hearing Whitfield preach, translated the hymn into English and reduced it to three verses (published 1771). William Williams then made his own translation, retaining Peter Williams’ first verse. Since then there have been a number of variations, including that of the first line, which variously appears as ‘Guide me , O thou great Jehovah’ and ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’.
Today the hymn is virtually inseparable from the stirring tune Cwm Rhondda, composed by John Hughes for a singing festival in 1905. Its first appearance in an English hymn book was not until the Methodist Hymn Book of 1933. Its popularity has been reinforced by its inclusion at events such as the funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The latter part of the tune is also the basis for the well known football chant
You’re not singing, you’re not singing
you’re not singing anymore.
You’re not singing anymore!
Here’s the hymn as it appears in Singing the Faith:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me now and evermore.
Open thou the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream shall flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through;
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be thou still my strength and shield
When I tread the verge of Jordan
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side;
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.
William Williams (1717-1791) translated by Peter Williams (1727-1796)
and here it is being sung by the lovely Katherine Jenkins.