THIS hymn was written as a poem in 1833 by one of Britain’s best-known and most controversial churchmen, Saint John Henry Newman (1801-1890). It would take a book to cover his life and achievements, so this is necessarily a very condensed summary.
Newman was born in London, the eldest of six children of a City banker. His family were practising members of the Church of England and at an early age Newman became an avid reader of the Bible.
When he was 15, he experienced a religious conversion which he described later.
‘When I was fifteen a great change of thought took place in me . . . I believed that the inward conversion of which I was conscious . . . would last into the next life, and that I was elected to eternal glory . . . I believe that it had some influence on my opinions . . . in isolating me from the objects which surrounded me, in confirming me in my mistrust of the reality of material phenomena, and making me rest in the thought of two and two only absolute and luminously self-evident beings, myself and my creator.’
At 16 Newman went up to Trinity College, Oxford, and on graduation he was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College in 1822. He took Anglican orders in 1824, writing the day after his ordination as a deacon: ‘I have the responsibility of souls on me to the day of my death.’
In 1825, he became curate of St Clement’s Church, Oxford. In his time there, Newman became known for visiting all his parishioners, especially the sick and the poor. He also preached at St Mary the Virgin, the Church of Oxford University. Newman’s method of preaching and his messages captivated congregations. A listener said: ‘He laid his finger gently, yet how powerfully, on some inner place in the hearer’s heart, and told him things about himself he had never known til then.’ People began to travel long distances to hear him and he quickly became the most influential preacher in the country.
In 1833 on a trip to Sicily, Newman became seriously ill, probably with typhoid fever. Later he wrote:
‘Before starting from my inn, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, “I have a work to do in England.” I was aching to get home, yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed for whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead, Kindly Light, which have since become so well known.’
The poem was originally titled The Pillar of the Cloud, a reference to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. According to Exodus 13: 21-22, they were guided by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. It was first published in the British Magazine in 1834. These are the words:
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
(As ever, there was someone who thought he could improve it. Edward Henry Bickersteth, later Bishop of Exeter, added a fourth verse for the poem’s publication in the Hymnal Companion in 1870.
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest for ever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.
Newman was not pleased, writing to the publishers: ‘It is not that the verse is not both in sentiment and language graceful and good, but I think you will at once see how unwilling an author must be to subject himself to the inconvenience of that being ascribed to him which is not his own.’ His protest seems to have worked as this verse is no longer published.)
On his return to England after his illness Newman was one of the moving spirits of the Oxford Movement. They despaired at the state of the Church of England at that time, believing that it cared more for maintaining a good relationship with the establishment than being true to its origins. He went on to convert to Roman Catholicism in 1845, which he described as ‘like coming into port after a rough sea’. But his conversion cost Newman most of his friends from the Church of England, his family rejected him and he could no longer be a fellow at Oxford. He did not return to the city for 34 years.
In 1865 he wrote the poem The Dream of Gerontius, which Edward Elgar set to music in 1900.
His relationship with the Catholic Church was not always smooth but in 1879 Pope Leo XIII appointed him a cardinal. He died at the age of 89 on August 11, 1890, and was canonised as a saint in the Catholic Church in 2019.
Lead, Kindly Light was sung by 26 survivors of a mine disaster at West Stanley colliery, Co Durham, in 1909 as they waited 14 hours for rescue. Another 168 men and boys lost their lives.
It was performed by soloist Marion Wright during a service on the Titanic shortly before the liner sank on April 14, 1912. It was also sung aboard one of the Titanic’s lifeboats when the rescue ship Carpathia was sighted the following morning.
In February 1915, British troops sang it at services on the Western Front before going into the trenches the following day.
There are several tunes. One is Sandon by Charles Henry Purday (1799-1885). This is probably the one the miners sang.
Here it is by the choir of Ely Cathedral.
I am not sure if this is by the Salvation Army or the Grimethorpe Colliery Band. Either way it’s lovely.
The next is Lux Benigna composed by John Bacchus Dykes in 1865.
This is William Warfield in 1962.
Here is a great 1913 recording by the Knickerbocker Quartet, one of many from the era.
It was set as a choral anthem by John Stainer in 1886. It is performed by the choir of the Abbey School, Tewkesbury.
Finally, my favourite, a setting called Lux in Tenebris by Sir Arthur Sullivan. This is sung by the choir of Keble College, Oxford.