Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah Story by Tim Challies
If Isaac Watts is known as the father of English hymnody, William Williams is considered by many to be the father of Welsh hymnody. William Williams (1717-1791), born in Carmarthenshire, Wales, to John and Dorothy Williams. According to Welsh hymn scholar Alan Luff, Williams grew up as an Independent and later a Calvinist, but had no aspirations to be a minister. In fact, he intended to be a doctor, attending school at the Dissenting Academy of LLwyn-llwyd, near Talgarth, Wales. It was near Talgarth in 1738 when Williams heard a sermon by the revivalist preacher Howell Harris, a fiery Welsh layman who had been influenced by the Methodist movement in England. It was through this sermon that Williams discerned his calling to go into the ministry. Shortly after, he abandoned his Independent upbringing and desire to be a doctor to pursue ordination in the Established Church.
Williams first pursued becoming an Anglican priest (in the Church of Wales) and entered as a deacon in 1740. However, he soon came to discover that his heart was with Harris and his itinerant work, and before long he left his small curacy in the mountains to join with the traveling Methodist preachers.
The revivalists realized that the Welsh language was lacking in hymns—the church in Wales was still primarily singing metrical psalms in their worship services. In order to promote the creation of hymns, Harris put together a hymn-writing competition between the different preachers.
As Louis Benson relates, “the prize fell easily to Williams Williams, who had the poet’s passion and a gift of verse-writing. Therefore it was not very long before he was recognized as poet laureate of the Welsh revival.”
Williams would go on to write many hymns in both Welsh and English. “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” appeared in Welsh in 1745. Twenty six years later, in 1771, a Rev. Peter Williams translated the first verse into English, prompting William Williams to translate the rest of it into English as well.
It is fitting that Williams should be the author of a hymn about the Christian’s pilgrimage on earth since as a traveling Methodist preacher, he was a pilgrim in both the spiritual and physical sense.
Williams made an extraordinary record as an itinerant evangelist. He took the whole of Wales for his parish. His travels for forty-three years are said to make an average of 2230 miles a year, at a time when there were no railroads and few stage-coaches. In this way the greater part of Williams’ life was spent, not in a preacher’s study, but in the great world of out of doors. …
It was a picturesque life, but it was not an easy one; for nature is not always kind. It involved much exposure and constant fatigue. It incurred also that menace of the mob of which all these revival preachers were victims. …
Such self-sacrificing years of evangelism and those weary thousands of miles sum up the remainder of Williams’ life.
Here is the English text of the hymn (which is known also as “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer”):
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Be thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side:
Songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.