Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah
DESCRIPTION: "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, Pilgrim though this barren land; I am weak, but Thou art mighty.... Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more." The singer asks to be guided by the pillar of fire and to be taken safely to Canaan
AUTHOR: Words: William Williams (1717-1791) and others?
EARLIEST DATE: 1745 (words translated, according to the Methodist Hymnal)
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad
FOUND IN: US(Ap)
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Ritchie-Southern, p. 48, "Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fireside, p. 286, "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), pp. 94-95, "Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah" (1 text, 1 tune)
John Julian, editor, _A Dictionary of Hymnology_, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), pp. 77-78, "Arglwydd arwain trwy'r anialwch" (1 Welsh plus 2 English texts)
NOTES [972 words]: There seems to be some confusion about the origin of this hymn. With the exception of H. S. Perkins, The Climax (White, Smith & Co,, 1893?, p. 199, where it is given the name "Morrill" and credited to W. L. Woodcock), every source I checked credits at least some of the words to William Williams (who, according to McKim, p. 282, was known as "the 'Sweet Singer of Wales' and 'the Isaac Watts of Wales'"). Johnson thinks him the original and sole composer; Granger's Index to Poetry supports this. But the hymnals I checked all consider it a translation of the Welsh "Arglwydd arwain trwy'r Anialwch," with Peter Williams (1722-1796) responsible for some of the translation. Reynolds, p. 81, also mentions a possibility that John Williams, son of William, had some role in shaping the text.
Perhaps the most authoritative statement is from Julian, p. 77:
Arglwydd arwain trwy'r anialwch. W. Williams.... This was pub[lished] in the 1st ed. of the author's Alleluia, Bristol, 1745, in 5 st[anzas] of 6 l[ines].... [The Welsh text, titled "Nerth i fyned trwy'r Anialwch," follows.]The first tr[anslation] of a part of this hymn into English was by Peter Williams in his Hymns on Various Subjects (vii.), Together with The Novice Instructed: Being an abstract of a letter written to a friend. By the Rev. P. Williams, Carmarthen, 1771, Printed for the Author.... [A three stanza text, "Hymn V, Praying for Strength," follows.] These stanzas are a tr[anslation[ of st[anzas] 1, iii, v. W. Williams himself adopted the tr[anslation] of st[anza] i, tr[anslated] st[anzas] iii. and iv. into English, added a fourth stanza, and printed them in a leaflet as follows:
A Favorite Hymn
Lady Huntingdon's Young Collegians.
Printed by the desire of many Christian friends.
Lord, give it thy blessing.
[The standard text follows.] This leaflet was undated but was c. 1772." Julian also notes many divergences in the printed texts, and says that the translations of the poem into other languages are all based on the English, not the Welsh.
The confusion about the words is nothing to the tune, though. Three different books give three different melodies. Johnson lists his as by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872). A Lutheran hymnal I checked claims a tune written by George W. Warren in 1884. A different Lutheran production, the 1926 The Parish School Hymnal. puts it to "Pilgrim" by J. P. Ohl (1859). A Methodist hymnal sets it to John Hughes's "Cwm Rhonda," probably best known as the tune for "God of Grace and God of Glory"; this is also the tune cited on p. 201 of McKim. Reynolds, pp. 81, 342-343, also has it to "Cwm Rhonda," and says that author John Hughes lived in Wales 1873-1932. (A Mormon hymnal also uses "Cwm Rhonda, without listing the tune name on the page, but changes the lyrics to begin "Guide US, O though great Jehovah, GUIDE US TO THE PROMISED land; WE ARE weak, etc.) All of these tunes are different. So is Jean Ritchie's; hers is unattributed.
The earliest printing in my possession, in H. S. Perkins, H, J. Danforth, and E. V. DeGraff, The Song Wave, American Book Company, 1882, pp. 196-197, does not credit the lyrics but says the tune is "from Flotow." With no explanation of who or what a Flotow is. Presumably it's a reference to Friedrich von Flotow (1812-1883), whom Internet sources associate with this song. Perkins, in another book, The Climax, has multiple versions. That on p. 201 he calls "Martha" and lists as "Arr. from FLOTOW by H.S.P." But on p. 199 he has it to the tune "Morrill" credited to W. L. Woodcock.
The imagery of the song is strongly reminiscent of the Exodus -- e.g. in Exodus 16:4 God promises "bread from heaven" (the manna which the Israelites ate until they settled in Canaan). The Israelites are led by a pillar of fire at night (Ecxodus 13:21, etc.) There are no crystal fountains in Exodus, or anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, but the idea may have been inspired by the various references to water from a rock.
There is one other Exodus-inspired reference in the song, which is, however, an error. The name "Jehovah" is found in the King James translation of Exodus 6:9 as the (personal) name of God.
Unfortunately, that's not the correct name of God. The proper English consonants are not JHVH but YHVH, and the vowels are simply wrong. Jews eventually came to consider it profane to read the name of God (hence the Greek Bible consistently renders the name YHWH by Kyrios, the Lord, and English versions follow suit for the most part; the King James Bible has only half a dozen exceptions, but Exodus 6:9 is one of them).
To remind scripture readers not to pronounce the name of God (which was pretty definitely pronounced YAHVEH or YAHWEH), the Jews eventually started writing the consonants YHWH with the vowels of "adonai," the word for "Lord." What this was supposed to mean was, "When you see YHWH, read 'adonai.'" But the translators of the King James Bible took it literally, and applied the vowels of "adonai" to the consonants of "YHWH" and so produced the barbarism "Jehovah."
To be sure, neither Williams would be likely to care about Jewish practice, or even Christian practice; Reynolds, p. 462, describes Peter as having been converted by George Whitefield as a boy, ordained in 1744 -- and promptly driven from the Episcopal Church. He became a "Calvinistic Methodist," but was expelled from that denomination for heresy. Eventually he founded his own congregation -- independent and presumably heretical. Reynolds, p. 464, describes William as having originally intended a career in medicine, then gone into the ministry -- but, having become a deacon, he refused ordination and quit the Church of England had became an itinerant preacher. He is alleged to have written 800 Welsh hymns and 100 English hymns; this is the only one of any note. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.