Throughout the centuries the Welsh people have been recognized as one of the most enthusiastic groups of singers in the world. From the days of the Druids, Wales has been a land of song. To this day, they still conduct an International Eisteddfodd (singing festival) at Llangollen. This hymn is a product of that fine musical heritage.
During the early part of the eighteenth century, a young Welsh preacher, Howell Harris, was stirring Wales with his evangelistic preaching and congregational singing. In England, the Wesleys and George Whitefield were conducting similar revivals and outdoor campaigns. 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 in the Anglican Church for a time, but never felt at ease in the established, ritualistic 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. Though he suffered many hardships, he was affectionately known as the “sweet singer of Wales.” Throughout Wales 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. One hymnologist has said, “What Isaac Watts has been to England, that and more has William Williams been to Wales.” Unfortunately, most of Williams’s hymns 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, 5. A year later the original author, William Williams, or possibly his son John, made another English version using Peter Williams’s 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.
The imagery of the hymn is drawn wholly from the Bible. 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.” Note the symbolic phrases used throughout: “bread of heaven” (manna), “crystal fountain” (I Corinthians 10:3, 4), “fire and cloudy pillar,” “verge of Jordan,” “Canaan’s Side.” 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. This particular tune was written especially for the annual Baptist Cymnfa Ganu (singing festival) at Capel Rhondda, Pontypridd, Wales, and was printed in leaflets for that occasion. The text with this tune is still one of the most popular and widely used hymns in Wales. It is not at all uncommon even today for a large crowd at some public event such as a rugby match to burst into the spontaneous singing of this hymn. The strong symbolic text with its virile tune has had great universal appeal, evidenced by the fact that the hymn has been translated into over seventy-five different languages.
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy pow’rful 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.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Bear me thro’ the swelling current,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs and praises, songs and praises,
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.
– Kenneth Osbeck