Keeping the Hymns Close By

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Author – William Williams, 1717 – 1791
English Translation – Peter Williams, 1722 – 1796, and others
Composer – John Hughes, 1873 – 1932
The hymn was written and first published in 1745

For Thou art my rock and my fortress, therefore for Thy name’s sake lead me, and guide me. Psalm 31:3

During the early part of the eighteenth century a young Welsh preacher, Howell Harris, was stirring Wales with his evangelistic preaching and congregational singing. One of the lives touched by Harris’s preaching was William Williams. Prior to this time Williams had been preparing for the medical profession, but upon hearing a sermon by Harris, young Williams gave his heart and life to God and decided to enter the ministry. He served two parishes for a time but never felt at ease in the established church. Like Harris, he decided to take all of Wales as his parish and for the next forty-three years traveled nearly 100,000 miles on horseback, preaching and singing the gospel in his native tongue. He was respected as a persuasive preacher, yet it is said that the chief source of his influence was his hymns. He wrote approximately 800 of them, all in Welsh. Unfortunately, most of Williams’ are untranslated, and this is the only hymn for which he is widely known today.

“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” first appeared in a hymnal published by Williams in Bristol, England, in 1745. It originally consisted of five six-line stanzas and was entitled “Strength to Pass Through the Wilderness.” In 1771 another hymnal was published by Peter Williams (no relation) in which he translated into English stanzas 1, 3, and 5. A year later William Williams, or his son John, made another English version using Peter Williams’ first stanza, then translating stanzas three and four of the original hymn and adding a new fourth verse. Most hymnals today make use of only three of these stanzas.

Traces of the hardship Williams experienced as a traveling minister can be found throughout the hymn. Williams beautifully interweaves imagery from the Old Testament book of Exodus to evoke a sense of God’s guidance through strife. One of the reasons this hymn has influenced such a broad array of congregants is the universal subject of struggle. Every Christian, and indeed everyone, encounters difficulties. This God who provided for the Hebrew people wandering amidst “barren lands” with “Bread of Heaven” is still and ever will be a God of provisional grace. The hymn compares the forty-year journey of the Israelites to the promised land with the living of a Christian life as a “pilgrim[age] through this barren land.” In the second stanza, Williams makes a reference to Exodus 13:21 – “the fire and cloudy pillar” that the Israelites followed by night and by day respectively. There is also a reference to a “crystal fountain” from “whence the healing stream doth flow.” This alludes to the water flowing from the rock for the Hebrew people in Exodus 17:6. These rich biblical references maintain the idea of a provisional God. The hymn ends in climatic fashion with the Hebrew people finally reaching their destination. It references the book of Joshua with the crossing of the river “Jordan” and the arrival at Canaan. The final lines conclude with exuberance, as the “people of Israel” sing of victory to their Redeemer and Provider.

The tune for this text was written in 1907 by John Hughes, a noted Welsh composer of a number of Sunday School marches, anthems and hymn tunes. The text with this tune is still one of the most popular and widely used hymns in Wales. The hymn has had universal appeal as it has been translated into over seventy-five different languages. “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” has brought and will continue to bring comfort with its reminder of a God who provides for those in need.

Used by permission from “History of Hymns” by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Director of the Sacred Music Program and Distinguished Professor, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.