by William Williams (1717–1791)

This great hymn is the product of the revival movement that swept through Wales during the eighteenth century. Its leader, Howell Harris, combined preaching with congregational singing. In 1740, William Williams, the twenty-year-old son of a wealthy Welsh farmer, came under Harris’ influence, abandoned his dreams of becoming a physician, and, for the next forty-three years, traveled one hundred thousand miles on horseback, preaching and singing the gospel in Welsh. He became known as the “sweet singer of Wales,” rivaling in fame the great Isaac Watts. Williams was bilingual and is credited with writing more than four hundred hymns in Welsh and one hundred in English. 

The composer of the tune was Peter Williams, a Welshman converted by George Whitfield. Williams trained for the ministry and became an itinerant preacher. He published a family edition of the Welsh Bible with a commentary and a concordance, and published a Welsh hymnbook in 1759 that included this hymn.

The vivid, symbolic imagery of this text likens the Christian life to the march of the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai to the Promised Land of Canaan; its original title was “Strength to Pass Through the Wilderness.” Although Israel’s sin and unbelief extended their wilderness sojourn by forty years, God continued to guide and sustain them.

by Joseph H. Gilmore (1834–1918)

The words of this hymn are a paraphrase of Psalm 23 and were inspired by a sermon preached by Joseph Gilmore, a Baptist minister, in 1862. While visiting friends after the evening service, Gilmore scribbled down these lines and handed them to his wife. Unbeknownst to him, she sent the verse to a magazine, where it was published the following year. Three years later, Joseph Gilmore became pastor of the Baptist church in Rochester, New York, USA. Upon entering the chapel, he took up a hymnal to see what hymns were being sung. To his astonishment, the hymnal opened up to “He Leadeth Me.” It was the first time he had seen these verses since hurriedly jotting them down after his sermon.

Gilmore, a graduate of Brown University and Newton Theological Seminary, had a varied professional career: he served as a church pastor, the private secretary for the Governor of New Hampshire (his father), and as Professor of Logic and Literature at the University of Rochester until his retirement in 1911.

The tune was composed by William Bradbury. He enlarged Gilmore’s refrain, which originally was only two lines, and wrote his tune to fit the words.

by Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

This hymn emerged from a complaint made by eighteenyear-old Isaac Watts to his father, a deacon in an Independent congregation, about the poor quality of psalm-singing in the churches of Southhampton, England. An inveterate versifier from childhood, Watts was told by his father to write something better. He rose to the challenge and, for two years, wrote hymns while waiting for a ministerial appointment. It came in 1699, when he was called to be the minister of a London congregation. However, due to his failing health, he retired to Stoke Newington, where he lived as a semi-invalid for the remaining thirty-six years of his life. Yet despite his infirmities, he wrote six hundred hymns and 150 paraphrases of the psalms of David. A memorial bust stands in his honor in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.

“O God Our Help in Ages Past” is known as the second national anthem of the British Commonwealth. The hymn’s five stanzas are a model of simplicity: 91 of its 140 syllables are comprised of one-syllable words. More than 250 years later, this hymn is a reminder of God’s faithfulness and guidance in our lives. The tune’s composer, William Croft, was the organist at Westminster Abbey and wrote thirty anthems, songs, and odes for the theater, as well as music for harpsichord and violin.

by Ernest W. Shurtleff (1862–1917)

This hymn was written as a graduation march. In 1887, Ernest Warburton Shurtleff was to receive his diploma from Andover Theological Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts. He had studied at Harvard and, because he had already published two volumes of poetry, his colleagues invited him to write their class poem. Shurtleff replied, “Let’s make it a hymn we can sing. We’ve been spending days of preparation here at seminary. Now the day of march has come, and we must go out to follow the leadership of the King of kings, to conquer the world under His banner.”

Shurtleff was ordained to the Congregational ministry in 1889 and occupied pastorates in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. In 1905, he organized the American Church in Frankfurt, Germany, worked among the American students in Paris, and did relief work during World War I until his death in Paris in 1917.

The words have a martial spirit, enhanced by the music composed by Henry Smart; the song became a fitting hymn to celebrate the three-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in England. Smart was trained as a lawyer but surrendered to his passion for music, particularly organs, which he designed and built. In the 1860s he became blind, but his remarkable memory enabled him to continue his employment, compositions, and improvisations.