Lead, Kindly Light
John Henry Newman, 1833
Hymn of the Week: Lead, Kindly Light
John Henry Newman,
How great a part of ordinary human life were the old beloved hymns! Let me draw for you a couple of scenes to show it.
It is the evening of September 13, 1901. The President of the United States is lying in bed, dying. A week before, he had been at a rally in Buffalo, when an immigrant from Poland, a young anarchist who said he wanted to kill a great leader, shot two bullets into his belly. The president’s first words were purely Christian in character. He urged the people around him not to harm the man who shot him, and he begged his aide to be gentle in breaking the news to his wife. For William McKinley loved his wife Ida very dearly, more dearly because she was frail, an invalid; and he used to wave to her from his office window at a special time every day.
But now she is at his side, and he says he is going to die. “We are all going,” he says. “It is God’s way.” The doctors move aside. I am looking at a picture of the scene, from a magazine of the time. “The strong face of the dying man lighted up with a faint smile,” reads the caption, “as their hands were clasped. In his last period of consciousness,” shortly before 8:00 pm, he “chanted the words of the beautiful hymn, Nearer, My God, to Thee,” or it may be that Ida sang it to him softly, and he tried to join her. The accounts differ. He then lost consciousness, and died in the early hours of September 14.
His favorite hymn, though, according to the medal that was struck in his memory, was another beautiful and deeply moving appeal to God when we cast all our hope upon him. I am looking now at that medal, in its case. Above the coin, we read, “It is God’s Way. His Will Be Done.” Below, we find the three verses of “Lead, Kindly Light,” our hymn this week, designated as “The President’s Favorite Hymn,” and it is duly attributed to “(Cardinal) John Henry Newman.”
But now I take you to another scene. It is deep underground, in utter darkness. They are 27 men and boys, in a coal mine near Durham, England. Explosions have trapped them there. They should have suffocated or died instantly from inhaling carbon monoxide, but somehow they are still alive, in a pocket of sweet air. One of the boys has been injured badly, and he has only a few moments left to live. They can only wait for help, and no one knows how long that will take, or whether they will be found at all, or how long the air can last. All at once, one of the men begins to hum the music of our hymn, and the men join in with the words, “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom.” The boy passes away while they are singing. If it seems terrible, I wonder if you really would prefer to die instead to the sounds of a monitor or an intercom or a television, in the cold white plastic sheath of a modern hospital. Sacred song was the last thing that both William McKinley and the boy Jimmy Gardner heard.
When John Henry Newman wrote “Lead, Kindly Light,” he was returning to England from Italy after a severe illness, and it wasn’t just a physical ailment, either. He felt that he had urgent work to do in his beloved homeland, to bring the English church, as he believed, closer to its wellsprings, closer to ancient practice and belief. Newman was a giant of intellect and culture, and yet his short poem was taken up by all Christians, no matter the denomination, and no matter for social class or education. You could have heard it on one of the lifeboats of the Titanic, as its survivors awaited to be rescued from the bitter sea. You could have heard it sung by the Dutch woman Betsie ten Boom, who with her sister Corrie saved many Jewish people from the Nazi slaughters. Betsie sang it on her way to the concentration camp at Ravensbrück, where she would die, but her sister Corrie survived and went on to preach of Christ all the world over.
The hymn was a part of a poem called “The Pillar of Cloud,” referring to the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night that led the children of Israel as they fled from bondage in Egypt. But in Newman’s hymn, we are alone, and the wilderness is that of our own lives, our own will, our own way. There is perhaps no sadder verse in all of the Old Testament than that which ends the Book of Judges, that there was no king in Israel then, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. And, says Solomon, “there is a way which seemeth right to a man, but the end thereof is death.” But the way of God, which only God can show us, and only He can lead us along it and bring us safe to the end, is life and light, no matter how dark the day may seem, and no matter for “moor and fen,” and “crag and torrent.” Return, O man, to that way! Do not worry if you cannot see far ahead. God’s is the future, His is the path, His the hand that guides, and He is both the way and the destination.
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom, Lead thou me on; The night is dark, and I am far from home, Lead thou me on. Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me. I was not ever thus, nor prayed that thou Shouldst lead me on; I loved to choose and see my path, but now Lead thou me on. I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears, Pride ruled my will: remember not past years. So long thy power hath blest me, sure it still Will lead me on O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till The night is gone, And with the morn those Angel faces smile, Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
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