Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us


THE editors of hymn books often seem to think they can do a better job of the words than the original writers. Most of the time they make a complete mess of it, as with this week’s choice, Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us.

It was written by James Edmeston, who was born in 1791 in Wapping in east London, part of the docklands. His family were nonconformists and his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Samuel Brewer, was Congregationalist pastor at Stepney Meeting House for 50 years. However, James was attracted to the Church of England and became an Anglican.

He trained as an architect and surveyor, starting out on his professional career in 1816 in Bishopsgate, when he was 25. Later he took on as a pupil George Gilbert Scott, who went on to design many well-known buildings including the Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras Station, the Albert Memorial, St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow, and St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. In 1864 Edmeston built Columbia Wharf, Rotherhithe, the first grain silo in a British port.

Edmeston started publishing volumes of poetry while in his mid-20s. He was churchwarden of his local parish of Saint Barnabas at Homerton, east London. He wrote 2,000 hymns, one for every Sunday.

The only one that survives is Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us, which first appeared in Sacred Lyrics, a collection of Edmeston’s writing published in 1821. These are the words:

Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
o’er the world’s tempestuous sea;
guard us, guide us, keep us, feed us,
for we have no help but thee,
yet possessing every blessing
if our God our guide shall be.

Saviour, breathe forgiveness o’er us,
all our weakness thou dost know;
thou didst tread this earth before us,
thou didst feel its keenest woe;
lone and dreary, faint and weary
through the desert thou didst go.

Spirit of our God descending,
fill our hearts with heavenly joy,
love with every passion blending,
pleasure that can never cloy;
thus provided, pardoned, guided
nothing can our peace destroy.

However the editors of the New English Hymnal published in 1986 thought they knew better and changed the lines ‘lone and dreary, faint and weary/through the desert thou didst go’ to ‘self-denying, death-defying, thou to Calvary didst go’.

They defend their decision thus in the introduction:

‘Some may be critical of revisions and alterations which we have made in original texts. We make no apology for this except where we may have done it badly; it is a process which has long been current . . . Well-known and popular hymns have rarely been amended, though we felt it desirable to abandon the description of our Lord as “lone and dreary”.’

Apart from the clunking lack of originality and perverse rhythm of the new words (‘Calvary’ has to be three equally stressed syllables: ‘Cal-var-y’), they simply don’t mean the same as the original.

Blogger Catherine Rowett has written: ‘The hymn is precisely making the point that Our Lord not only could, but did, feel “our keenest woe”. He was not immune from those sad times, and indeed when he went out into the desert it was precisely to experience the very depths of temptation. “All our weakness thou didst know”: that bit we are still allowed to sing. But if Our Lord knew “all our weakness” then he was allowed to feel what we feel (lone when alone, dreary when things are not going right and so on and so forth).’

About the new second line, she adds: ‘Edmeston was not talking about Calvary. He was talking about Christ’s earthly life, his humdrum daily existence as an ordinary man, and particularly his terrifying experience in the wilderness as a young man before he embarked on his ministry and his journey to death. When we gain comfort from the thought that Christ understands our difficulties, and that we can seek forgiveness because he feels what it is like for us to be weak in the face of misery and loneliness, the relevant thing is the temptations: the weakness that is part of the human condition, what it is to “tread this earth” as a human being. It is not in the unusual punishments, but in the weakness of the flesh, that we see Christ as having a fully human nature.’

Another blogger, Ian Poulson, says: ‘“Death-defying” makes Jesus sound like a circus stuntman and is not faithful to the Gospel account. Jesus does not defy death, he succumbs to death in order that he might destroy its power for ever. In my book, there is a big difference between defying something and destroying it!’

The New English Hymnal was the 1986 update of the first English Hymnal published in 1906. Regular readers will know of my beef with its editors, Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who systematically omitted or gave new tunes to many much-loved hymns on the grounds that they were ‘sentimental’. So the NEH’s cavalier and frankly ignorant approach doesn’t surprise me. I’m glad to say other hymn book editors are perfectly happy with Edmeston’s lines.

I can’t find out much about the composer of the hymn’s tune, which is called Mannheim. Friedrich Filitz was born in Arnstadt, Thuringia, central Germany, in 1804. He was awarded a doctorate in philosophy and lived in Berlin from 1843 to 1847. He moved to Munich where he remained until his death in 1876. He published a collection of 16th and 17th century chorales in 1845 and I think Mannheim is taken from that work.

The only other composition by Filitz I can find is his setting of Glory Be To Jesus, a translation from an anonymous Italian original by Edward Caswall, sung here by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Here is Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us, at the Queen’s 90th birthday service at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2016.

And I love this heartfelt version from Guyana.

Another setting occasionally used is called Dulce Carmen but I cannot find definite details about the composer. Here it is:

While hunting round YouTube I also came across this setting by the English composer Roger Quilter (1877-1953):

He is better known for his Non Nobis Domine, which many schools use as their song. Here it is performed by current and former pupils at Marsden School in Wellington, New Zealand.

As always, I am grateful to receive readers’ suggestions for future hymns in this series.

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