Notes from BenMonthly musings from the Choirmaster


Guide me, O thou great Jehovah

I am not quite old enough to remember the first release of The African Queen, the 1951 film starring Katherine Hepburn and Robert Morley as prim Methodist missionaries in German East Africa just before World War I. Humphrey Bogart plays the rude, gin-swilling captain of a dilapidated steamboat (the African Queen) who Katherine Hepburn somehow persuades to attack a German warship, the Koenigin Luise, by transforming the near derelict African Queen into a makeshift torpedo boat. I have added this to my collection of movies with favorite terrible hymn-singing scenes, as Katherine Hepburn furiously pumps away at a wreck of an old reed organ, desperately singing “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” while the native congregation drones away loudly but uncomprehendingly in no particular key.

The rousing Welsh tune, Cwm Rhondda, used for this text, is one that manages to survive the worst possible conditions; hence its common use by crowds at Welsh rugby matches, substituting the words “You’re not singing anymore” for “Feed me till I want no more” when taunting fans on the losing side. The words are also originally Welsh, having appeared first in a collection of hymns by William Williams in 1773, “The Songs of Those upon the Sea of Glass,” which gave as the title of this hymn “A Prayer for Strength to go through the Wilderness of the World.” Williams was an Anglican deacon before becoming a leading figure in the Welsh Methodist Revival, and most of his hymns and writings were originally in the Welsh language.

The hymn refers to the Book of Exodus, with God’s people traveling through the wilderness from the escape of slavery in Egypt, guided with a cloud by day and fire by night, being fed with manna, and finally arriving in Canaan. This is used as an allegory for the Christian life, a journey which requires the Redeemer’s guidance, and ends at the gates of heaven (the “verge of Jordan”) and the end of time (“death of death and hell’s destruction.”)

The original had six verses, rather than only the three in our current hymnal. The following translation, while not singable, gives one a closer sense of the original poem.

Lord, guide me through the wilderness,
A pilgrim of poor appearance,
There is neither strength nor life in me,
As though we were lying in the grave;
Almighty, it is thou who will take me to that shore.
I wandered for long years,
Seeing not the break of dawn;
I despaired, without thy strength,
Ever to leave the desert land;
Grant me the occasion to escape.
Give a pillar of fire to lead me in the night,
And a pillar of mist in the day,
Hold me when I travel places
Which are rough along the way,
Give me manna, that I shall not despair.
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