Joseph Henry Gilmore was born in Boston, Massachusetts USA, in 1834. At the age of 28 he was ordained to the Baptist ministry, later becoming professor of “logic, rhetoric and English literature” at the University of Rochester, New York.
It was when he was 28 – speaking at a mid-week meeting on Psalm 23 – that he jotted down the words of the hymn for which he is remembered:
He leadeth me! O blessed thought,
O words with heavenly comfort fraught.
Whate’er I do, where-e’er I be,
still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me….
He recounts the events thus: He was a 28 year old student soon to become a pastor and was invited to preach at the historic First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. “I set out to give the people an exposition of the Twenty-third Psalm. I had given this exposition on three or four other occasions; but this time I did not get beyond the words ‘He leadeth me’. So greatly impressed was I with the blessedness of divine guidance that I made this my theme.”
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After the meeting Henry and others “continued our discussion of divine guidance. While I was still talking and listening, I wrote on a piece of my exposition manuscript the words to this hymn. I handed the paper to my wife and more or less forgot the incident.”
Some months later Henry’s wife sent the poem to the Watchman and Reflector, a Christian magazine. It was first printed on 4 December, 1862, under the pseudonym, Contoocook. Nobody, today, knows why (Companion to the Baptist Hymnal, page 85)!
But there’s more! Composer of gospel melodies, William Bradbury, set the poem to music in 1864, and it was not until the following year, when he was preaching at the Second Baptist Church, Rochester, New York State, that Joseph Gilmore found it in the hymnal (Companion to Hymns, page 314)!
Three years after he preached that message, having pastored for some time in New Hampshire, Henry was invited to preach a trial sermon at the Second Baptist Church in Rochester, with the view to possibly becoming their minister. “I picked up a church hymnal to see what songs they sang and was surprised to have the book fall open to the very song I had written three years earlier”.
When he related this to his wife she told him how she had sent the verses on, hoping others would be blessed. Henry took this as a sign that he was indeed to take the pastorate in Rochester, which he did, and which led him to a long and fruitful season of academic involvement as well.
Being in Rochester put Gilmore in position two years later to accept an offer to teach Hebrew at Rochester Theological Seminary. The following year, he was offered a professorship of logic and English literature at the University of Rochester, which he held until his retirement in 1908. An English chair at the school is named after him.
Joseph Gilmore died in Rochester on 23 July, 1918.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com
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