I remember this hymn vividly in 1997 when it was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey, London, September 6, 1997. But before that I had loved this hymn in my mother tongue – Tonga. Ndisololela Jehovah ndilimulweendo lwangu, Ulanguzu ime nyina….Nendasika kulufu gwisya kuyoowa kwangu. My Ndebele bretheren will feel bad that on this occasion I have gone with my Zambian mother, I will translate some other hymn in SiNdebele. For now here is the full hymn in English.
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
[or Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer…]
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 till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield;
Be Thou still my Strength and Shield.
Lord, I trust Thy mighty power,
Wondrous are Thy works of old;
Thou deliver’st Thine from thralldom,
Who for naught themselves had sold:
Thou didst conquer, Thou didst conquer,
Sin, and Satan and the grave,
Sin, and Satan and the grave.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.
Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
The Hymn Story
Indelibly associated with Welsh Male Voice Choirs and Eisteddfods, this hymn was originally written in Welsh by a Methodist preacher William Williams (1719-91), a pioneering hymnist who (in the words of S W Duffield) ‘did for Wales what Wesley and Watts did for England.’
In 1771 it was translated into English by Peter Williams, no relation, and Williams himself. The verse was tinkered with several times in the course of the 19th century, and the hymn is still often sung as ‘Guide me, o thou great Redeemer’. It can be heard sung in Welsh in John Ford’s Oscar-winning movie of 1941, How Green was my Valley.
Williams’ words have been much admired for their plain yet majestic dignity. ‘The grandest re-enactment in modern hymnody of the Israelite journey through the barren wilderness to the Promised Land, which is the type of all spiritual pilgrimage’, assert Marjorie Reeves and Jenyth Worsley; while J R Watson judges it ‘one of the greatest of evangelical hymns, mainly because of its understatement.’
The tune, ‘Cwm Rhondda’, sung in the trenches and mines as well as at numberless rugby matches, was composed in 1905 by John Hughes for a singing festival – legend has it that he wrote it in chalk on a tarpaulin (though why he should have done so has never been explained). The repeated high notes of the verse’s last line are a gift to Welsh tenors keen to show off their larynxes and can be drawn out to awesomely vulgar musical effect.
It is fitting that Williams should be the author of a hymn about the Christian’s pilgrimage on earth since as a traveling Methodist preacher, he was a pilgrim in both the spiritual and physical sense.Williams made an extraordinary record as an itinerant evangelist. He took the whole of Wales for his parish. His travels for forty-three years are said to make an average of 2230 miles a year, at a time when there were no railroads and few stage-coaches. In this way the greater part of Williams’ life was spent, not in a preacher’s study, but in the great world of out of doors. …It was a picturesque life, but it was not an easy one; for nature is not always kind. It involved much exposure and constant fatigue. It incurred also that menace of the mob of which all these revival preachers were victims. …Such self-sacrificing years of evangelism and those weary thousands of miles sum up the remainder of Williams’ life.
This very personal hymn seeks the same care that God gave the Israelites in the wilderness: “Bread of heaven”, the manna in the wilderness, “Open now the crystal fountain”, water from the rock, “Let the fire and cloudy pillar”, the pillar God used to guide them and protect them in the wilderness.
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” has been translated into seventy-five languages. It is so loved in Wales I understand that it is considered an unofficial national anthem.
It was first published by Williams in 1745, in Hallelujah, with five six-line stanzas. In 1771, Peter Williams translated stanzas 1, 3 and 5 into English and published them in his Hymns on Various Subjects, 1771. A year later, William Williams, or possibly his son, John Williams, translated another English version, using Peter Williams’ first stanza, then translating stanzas 3 and 4, and adding a new stanza as verse 4. He published it a leaflet with these words: “A favourite hymn sung by Lady Huntingdon’s Young Collegians. Printed by the desire of many Christian friends. Lord, give it Thy blessing!” Most hymnals use the first three stanzas of this translation only.
Many are the stories of this beautiful anthem giving people strength in time of adversity. Three women missionaries in China, with bandits outside their door, sang this as though nothing was wrong, receiving comfort and courage from their “Strong Deliverer”. Imprisoned with only dry, hard bread and tea, they sang it as Paul and Silas, their spirits undaunted, fed by the “Bread of heaven.” In the trenches of Flanders during World War I, it was sung so melodiously by the Welch soldiers that the German soldiers also took it up. Miners sang it on their way to the mines. It could be spontaneously sung at Welsh sporting events, and was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral.