The Children of Israel Crossing the Jordan

Lead, Kindly Light

I hope you’ve had a fantastic September! If you’ve joined us in our hymn rotation, you’ve been singing one of my favorite hymns, Lead, Kindly Light, and I’d like to tell you more about it. This was the last hymn sung on the RMS Titanic before it hit the famed iceberg, and was sung again in the lifeboats among the survivors. This was the hymn Queen Victoria requested to be sung as she lay dying in 1901; it was her favorite hymn. If you’ve read The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom, this was the hymn she, her sister, and other women sang as they were led by S.S. guards to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

And here is a touching story I found on Wikipedia:

The largest mining disaster in the Durham Coalfield in England was at West Stanley Colliery, known locally as “The Burns Pit”, when 168 men and boys lost their lives as the result of two underground explosions at 3:45pm on Tuesday, 16 February 1909. In the Towneley Seam 63 lay dead, in the Tilley Seam 18 lay dead, in the Busty Seam 33 lay dead and in the Brockwell Seam 48 lay dead. But incredibly, there were still men alive underground. A group of 34 men and boys in the Tilley Seam had found a pocket of clean air. They were led by Deputy Mark Henderson. Sadly, a few of them panicked and left the group, they died instantly after inhaling the poison gas. The remainder sat in almost total darkness, when one of them began humming the hymn “Lead, Kindly Light”. In no time at all, the rest of the miners joined in with the words, “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home.” […] Before the hymn ended, young Jimmy Gardner died of injuries. These 26 men were rescued after 14 hours, four others were later rescued.

The text of this lovely hymn was written in 1833 by an Anglican priest named John Henry Newman. He was at this point perhaps dealing with deep depression; he’d lost a beloved sister five years before, but he still felt the loss keenly.

To add to his troubles, during his travels in Italy, he grew dangerously ill, perhaps with gastric or typhoid fever. A loyal servant named Gennaro believed he was dying, and asked for final instructions. Newman recovered thanks to a conviction that the Lord still had work for him to do back home in England, and he took his recovery as a sign that he needed to reorder his life. He needed to get back to England, so he began making his way toward a port town on the shores of Italy, though it was slow going: he was still so weak from his illness that he collapsed after walking a mere seven miles, and subsequently was bedridden for the next three weeks. He made the rest of the journey to the shore by carriage.

However, for want of a vessel, it was weeks before he would be able to get any closer to home. His longing to return grew so intense that he wept bitterly at times. After three weeks, he was finally able to leave Italy on a little orange boat bound for Marseilles. But to his dismay, about half-way into the journey, the ship was stranded at the Straits of Bonifacio between Corsica and Sardinia for yet another week.

It was here in great anxiety that the weakened and emotional Newman wrote a poem entitled, “The Pillar of the Cloud”.

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 pray’d that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I lov’d to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I lov’d the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride rul’d my will: remember not past years.

So long Thy power hath bless’d 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 lov’d long since, and lost awhile.

Undoubtedly Newman took the title for his poem from Exodus 13:20-21. “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night. He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people.” I love to sing this with that imagery in mind—God himself is leading the way before me, personally, in a pillar of cloud, until the very end. And then, I will be reunited with the smiling face of those loved ones I have lost along the way.

Thirty-two years later in 1865, the Anglican hymnist John Bacchus Dykes took Newman’s poem and set it to music, creating the tune LUX BENIGNA just for this purpose. This is the steady, reassuring tune we are familiar with and the one in the LDS hymnbook. Funnily enough, Newman highly disapproved of setting his poem to music, as by this time he had converted to Catholicism where congregational hymns were not used in worship services.

Now, my sister informed me that there’s a fourth verse for this hymn out there, but Newman wasn’t the one to write it. I happen to like it, so I’ll share it with you:

Meantime along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
In the calm light of everlasting life,
To rest for ever after earthly strife.

This pirate verse was written by Edward Henry Bickersteth, Bishop of Exeter, who added it when he included Lead, Kindly Light in the “Hymnal Companion.” However, Newman himself saw it, and sent this letter to the editor:

I doubt not I gave leave for my lines “Lead, kindly Light” to be inserted into your collection of hymns—and did so readily—but a stranger has been kind enough to inform me that your compiler has added a verse to it not mine. It is not that the verse is not both in sentiment and language graceful and good, but I think you will at once see how unwilling an author must be to subject himself to the inconvenience of that being ascribed to him which is not his own.

I have not seen it myself in the “Hymnal Companion,” but the stanza has been quoted to me. It begins “Meanwhile, along the narrow, etc.”

I beg you to pardon me, if this letter is grounded in any mistake.

I am, Gentlemen,

Your faithful servant,


As an added treat, I found this arrangement which I also love. Enjoy.

Jenna DiltsJenna Dilts is a mother of three pre-school-aged children. Last year she led a discussion of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles on the AO forum. You can find her blogging at To Work Wonders, where she is currently working through AO year 1 for herself.