Sunday, December 30, 2007

“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”

When growing up, there were two hymns that we sang in church which were set to the Welsh hymn tune, “Cwm Rhondda”: “God of Grace and God of Glory” by the American Baptist minister Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) and “Guide Me, O Thou great Jehovah” by the Welsh preacher, poet and hymnwriter, William Williams (1717-1791).

Recently, I was comparing the words of these two hymns. It’s interesting how these hymns vary in the level of dependence upon God that they encourage. For instance, though it’s a fine hymn in many ways, if you read it carefully, you’ll notice that “God of Grace and God of Glory” expresses a kind of if-it-is-to-be-it’s-up-to-me philosophy:

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power;
Crown Thine ancient Church’s story;
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! The hosts of evil round us
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways!
Fears and doubts too long have bound us,
Free our hearts to work and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

Set our feet on lofty places;
Gird our lives that they may be
Armored with all Christ-like graces
In the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not man nor Thee,
That we fail not man nor Thee!

Save us from weak resignation
To the evils we deplore;
Let the search for Thy salvation
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee whom we adore,
Serving Thee whom we adore.

Although Harry Emerson Fosdick, the author, acknowledges God as the source of wisdom and courage, it is clear that he sees the task of accomplishing God’s will on earth as being ultimately dependent upon the work of God’s people: “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage/That we fail not man nor Thee!” Fosdick’s God is dependent upon people.

It is even more interesting when you consider that Fosdick was a leading figure in the Modernist-Fundamentalist controversies of the 1920s and 30s, as a prominent liberal minister and the pastor of the famed Riverside Church in New York City.

Now, compare Fosdick’s hymn with William Williams’ “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”:

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 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;
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,
I will ever give to Thee.

In Williams’ hymn, the Christian is totally dependent upon God. God is the believer’s guide, source of strength, spiritual deliverer and sustainer, companion at death and focus of praise in eternity. Williams, it turns out, was a friend of Howell Harris and George Whitefield, and was a leader in the 18th century Welsh revival and a notable figure in Calvinistic Methodist history. Theology makes a difference in the words we sing.

I absolutely love the hymn tune, “Cwm Rhondda”. Composed by John Hughes (1873-1932), this hymn tune, when combined with great words, lifts my thoughts to heaven in a most powerful way. It matters not what mood I’m in, I feel better after hearing “Cwm Rhondda”. This is, no doubt, why for many years I considered “God of Grace and God of Glory” one of my favorite hymns; in the A.M.E. Church of my youth, it was the hymn most often sung to the tune “Cwm Rhondda”. On the other hand, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” was most often sung to the tune “Zion” by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872) (an old tune that, by the way, I’ve never heard outside the traditional Black Church). Although “Zion” brings back many wonderful memories of good, ol’ A.M.E. congregational hymn singing (and works fairly well in a slow, gospel style), as a hymn tune it is not nearly as vigorous and stimulating as “Cwm Rhondda”.

So, it turns out that, when I was younger, I was drawn to “God of Grace and God of Glory” because of the music. With the passage of time, however, I’ve grown to appreciate more and more the depth of the words of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah”. Whereas I can identify with some of the sentiments of Fosdick’s hymn, I fully embrace the message of Williams’ hymn: I feel and know myself as weak and look to Yahweh (Jehovah) to hold me up and guide me, I know I can’t survive this life’s journey without the sustenance which the Lord provides, I so look forward to the “death of death and hell’s destruction”, and I hope, through Christ, to land “safe on Canaan’s side”.

Below is a great example of Welsh hymn singing that I found on YouTube. The version of the hymn that this group sings substitutes “Redeemer” for “Jehovah”, but I invite you to listen to their wonderful singing. After you’ve listened a while, feel free to join in with this great song of praise.

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