Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer


I THOUGHT we would go for a blockbuster today, and they don’t come much blockier than this one. It is also known as Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah and as Bread of Heaven.

Dealing with the journey of the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land as told in the Book of Exodus, it was written in Welsh in 1745 by the clergyman William Williams (1717-1791). He was born at Cefn-y-coed, near Llandovery, Carmarthenshire, and originally studied medicine, but abandoned it for theology. He was ordained deacon in the Church of England and was appointed curate in the parishes of Llanwrtyd, Llanfihangel Abergwesy and Llanddewi Abergwesyn. Around this time he became involved in the Methodist movement, which was seen as a threat to the Anglican establishment, and in June 1742 his disapproving parishioners reported his activities to the Archdeacon’s Court in Brecon. As a result when Williams duly applied for ordination as a priest in 1743, he was refused. He subsequently attached himself to the Calvinistic Methodists and for half a century he travelled round Wales, preaching the Gospel. He was was not only an important figure in the religious life in Wales, he was also one of the most important influences on Welsh language culture, writing poetry, prose and hymns in Welsh, and translating English works into Welsh. His hymn-writing ability earned him the accolade Y pêr ganiedydd (The Sweet Songster).

The hymn was translated into English in 1771 by Peter Williams (no relation, but with a similar career) (1722-1796). He was also born in Carmarthenshire, at Llansadurnin. He was converted to Christianity by the preaching of George Whitefield, one of the founders of Methodism, and was ordained in the Church of England in 1744. His Methodist leanings soon made him suspect and he left the C of E to join the Calvinist Methodists in 1746. He was an itinerant preacher for many years and was a leading figure in the Welsh religious revival of the eighteenth century. However a dispute on theology led to his being expelled by the Methodists in 1791 on a charge of heresy, and he ministered in his own chapel during the last years of his life.

The translation was published in Hymns on various subjects, 1771, using the name Jehovah. It was (as ever) altered and edited through various hymnals, and these are the words usually sung today (though some versions have updated ‘thou’ to ‘you’ and so on). Bread of Heaven refers to manna, the food provided by God for the Israelites during their 40 years in the desert.

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.
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.
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.
I will ever give to thee.

It used to be sung to several different tunes but now it is inextricably linked with the comparatively recent Cwm Rhondda, composed in 1905 by JohnHughes (1873-1932). Another Welshman, he was bornin Dowlais, Glamorganshire, and had little formal education. At the age of 12 he was already working as a door boy at a mining company in Llantwit Fardre. He eventually became an official in the traffic department of the Great Western Railway. He served as both deacon and precentor (leader of the congregational singing) at the Salem Baptist Church in Pontypridd. Hughes was not a prolific composer, having only two anthems, a number of Sunday school marches and a few hymn tunes to his name. He wrote the first version of Cwm Rhondda, which he called Rhondda, for a Cymanfa Ganu (hymn festival) in Pontypridd in 1905. The present form was developed for the inauguration of the organ at Capel Rhondda, in Hopkinstown in the Rhondda Valley, in 1907. Hughes played the organ at this performance, using the English translation of William Williams’s words perhaps because of the large number of English-speaking industrial workers who had migrated to the area. The name was later changed to Cwm Rhondda to avoid confusion with another tune.

The hymn has been sung at several royal weddings and funerals but since it was the Queen’s 94th birthday yesterday I have chosen the the service of thanksgiving to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee at St Paul’s Cathedral on June 5, 2012. 

Of course the best way to hear it is when it is sung by the Welsh, in this case before a rugby match at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. (I have written before about hymn snobbery, and here is a good example from Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph on September 22, 2007: ‘The repeated high notes of the verse’s last line are a gift to Welsh tenors keen to show off their larynxes and can be drawn out to awesomely vulgar musical effect’. What a nerve!)

Here it is in Welsh from the 1941 film How Green Was My Valley:

Finally, an up-to-the-minute self-isolation version posted two days ago.

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