Saturday, April 01, 2017

Singing the Faith: Day 27: Anthems - Protest and Encouragement

Guide me O thou Great Redeemer

This is another hymn which is popular at sporting fixtures – one of the few places other than churches where people regularly sing together.

It was written by William Williams, also called Pantycelyn (1717-91). He was one of the leaders of the Welsh evangelical revival movement of the 18th century. Having originally been ordained as a deacon in the Anglican Church, he eventually became an minister in the newly founded Welsh Calvinist Methodist church. He wrote around 800 hymns, and travelled more than 100,000 miles on foot and horseback as an itinerant preacher. Williams, often known simply as Pantycelyn was famous not only as a minister and hymn writer but as a champion of Welsh language and culture. Most of his hymns were written in Welsh, including this one. The English version we sing is a fairly free translation by Peter Williams (no relation – 1722-96), but William Williams also made his own translation, and the two were often mashed together, which is why some versions say “Redeemer” while others say “Jehovah”.

The hymn’s imagery is taken from the Old Testament story of the Exodus. The Israelites wandered for  40 years in the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, led by a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. God fed them with manna – the bread of heaven – and eventually they crossed the river Jordan into Canaan. In the hymn this is an image of our pilgrimage through life, across the “Jordan” of death and into the new life beyond death.

The tune, Cwm Rhondda, is far more recent than the words. It was written for a hymn singing festival in 1905 by John Hughes (1873-1932) It was so enthusiastically sung in the trenches during WW1 by Welsh troops that allegedly German troops in the opposing trenches learned it from them. Like the  hymn "Abide with me" (see last week's post), this hymn may have been carried from the WW1 battlefields to the post war sports fields by returning soldiers. 

Guide me, O thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand:
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven
Feed me till I want no more.

Open thou the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream shall flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Strong deliverer, strong deliverer
Be thou still my strength and shield.

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell's destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan's side:
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee.

  • ·         What “anxious fears” do you have about death?

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