He Leadeth Me

Joseph Henry Gilmore was born at Boston, April 29, 1834, and graduated in Arts at Brown University, and in Theology at Newton Theological Institution. In the latter he was Professor of Hebrew from 1861-1862. For some time he held a Baptist ministerial charge at Fisherville, New Hampshire, and later at Rochester, New York. He was appointed Professor of Logic in Rochester University in 1868.

In the spring of 1865, than a thirty-one year old minister, Joseph H. Gilmore took his place in the pulpit of the Second Baptist church at Rochester, New York. As he waited to deliver his trial sermon before the new congregation, he thumbed through a hymnal to select an impressive song. Musing through the book, his thumb stopped on one of the pages. His eyes widened. Then he smiled. His thoughts went back to a night three years earlier.

In his own words, Dr. Gilmore, tells the following story.

“As a young man recently graduated . . . ., I was supplying for a couple of Sundays the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia. At the midweek service on the 26th of March, 1862, I set out to give the people an exposition of the Twenty-third Psalm, which I had given before on three or four occasions, but this time I did not get further than the words, “He leadeth me.” Those words took hold of me as they have never done before, and I saw in them a significance . . . of which I had never dreamed.

It was the darkest hour of the Civil War. I did not refer to that fact— that is, I don’t think I did— but it may subconsciously have led me to realize that God’s leadership is the one significant fact in human experience, that it make no difference how we are led, or whither we are led, so long as we are sure God is leading us.

At the close of the meeting, a few of us in the parlor of my host, Deacon Watson, kept on talking about the thought I had emphasized; and then and there, on a blank page of the brief from which I had intended to speak, I penciled the hymn, talking and writing at the same time, then handed it to my wife and thought no more about it.”

Though he had forgotten his poem, Mrs. Gilmore had not. Without her husband’s knowledge, she had sent the poem to the religious periodical Watchman and Reflector. Though is was published shortly thereafter, it had not come to Dr. Gilmore’s attention, and he did not realize he had written a hymn-poem until he opened the book to the song, “He Leadeth Me.” “That was the first time I knew that my hymn had found a place among the songs of the church. I shall never forget the impression made upon me,” he added, “by coming in contact then and there with my own assertion of God’s blessed leadership.”

Though Dr. Gilmore had forgotten his poem and had indeed never seen it in print before he found it in that hymnbook, it might still have been lost but for the alertness of a composer. For it was William Bradbury who discovered its merits as a hymn, set it to music, and published it in The Golden Censer in 1864. It is Bradbury’s music that has assured the immortality of “He Leadeth Me.”

During his lifetime, Gilmore wrote several other hymns, but only this hymn, "He Leadeth Me," became well known and widely sung. It has appeared in more than 2000 hymnals.

A Hymn is Born / Bonner / 1959 / Broadman Press
Hymns and History / McCann / 1997 / ACU Press
Hymns of Faith / Reynolds / 1967 / Broadman Press
Then Sings My Soul # 1 Morgan / 2003 / Thomas Nelson Publishers