As a young man who recently had been graduated from Brown University and Newton Theological Institution, I was supplying for a couple of Sundays the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]. At the mid-week service, on the 26th of March, 1862, I set out to give the people an exposition of the Twenty-third Psalm, which I had given before on three or four occasions, but this time I did not get further than the words “He Leadeth Me.” Those words took hold of me as they had never done before, and I saw them in a significance and wondrous beauty of which I had never dreamed.
It was the darkest hour of the Civil War. I did not refer to that fact—that is, I don’t think I did—but it may subconsciously have led me to realize that God’s leadership is the one significant fact in human experience, that it makes no difference how we are led, or whither we are led, so long as we are sure God is leading us.
At the close of the meeting a few of us in the parlor of my host kept on talking about the thought which I had emphasized; and then and there, on a blank page of the brief from which I had intended to speak, I penciled the hymn, talking and writing at the same time, then handed it to my wife and thought no more about it. She sent it to The Watchman and Reflector, a paper published in Boston, where it was first printed. I did not know until 1865 that my hymn had been set to music by William B. Bradbury. I went to Rochester [New York] to preach as a candidate before the Second Baptist Church. Going into their chapel on arrival in the city, I picked up a hymnal to see what they were singing, and opened it at my own hymn, “He Leadeth Me.”
It’s hard to attempt to improve on that story or song right? The following is an attempt to do neither. Gilmore’s narrative stands on its own. This is just a continuation of how the song came back around me years after it was originally written.
I knew none of the backstory as I kicked through the South Texas scrubland in borrowed boots and a hoodie. I was definitely out of the city and on vacation. My goal was to walk down the main road from the ranch house to the front gate and then turn right toward the windmill. It’s not a long walk, but it gave me a chance to get alone again like I had the year before. My hopes were high for another word from the Lord on this special walk. Each year, we sneak away down there over spring break. Some of our closest friends have a family home there in the middle of nowhere. It’s become a retreat we look forward to each March.
As I walk, I hear the verses to He Leadeth Me come whispering across the blooms of the spring terrain. My mind is weaving in and out of each couplet with vivid memories of singing it beside Mom. Although I couldn’t read the musical notes in the hymnal at that age, I became an ace at the alto part by pure repetition.
“The song followed me home.”
For the next few days, that song kept drifting in and out of my mind. When we left I carried it home; or I should say: it followed me. Over the next month it began to get silly. He Leadeth Me was everywhere. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. In a creative spurt, I sat down at our small keyboard and banged out the instrumental hook notes of the intro. Being more of a guitar guy, I stumbled around until I got it in a spot where I would do the initial iPhone voice note version. I was relieved at finally getting it out and getting it recorded. I felt like I could finally file it away and move onto more important songs.
A week later, Don and I are trying to punch something out on another tune. As we are packing up, I deliver the cliqued old line about “showing you just one more idea I’m working on.” This time, with guitar in hand I get through the song and he gets that funny little look on his face. It’s the same face he makes when he asks us to help polish his golden collection of Dove awards. Its honestly hard to find a place to sit in his office with all the hardware laying around. I digress…and am kidding.
He turns around to the piano and in usual Don Koch he style sings one pass of a new chorus and immediately the song takes some kind of new direction. My first thought is that my kids would “actually enjoy singing that chorus more than the original” and that it would be a cool way to pass it on to them. So I had a great feeling about it and wanted to show them what Don sang and then move on to more important songs.
We circled back in a few days and the song came up yet again. This time with a challenge from Don to pen another verse. The original song has amazing verses, but I felt as though I could offer one in the spirit of the in which the song came back to me. Frankly, the second verse about summer and winter and not being able to see came fairly quickly. The Lord had apparently already been preparing my heart for it.
The song was complete and Don worked his magic on the arrangement, instrumentation, and vocal auto-tune. My heart grows more full everyday as I affirm the simple words of the chorus: He Leads Me. This is a song for the morning commute, an evening prayer, and the moments before I face a difficult situation. It’s my prayer that either hearing this refrain again or hearing it for the first time might ignite a deeper faith and trust in Him. It truly is a “precious thought” to treasure in the deep place of the heart: He is the Good Shepherd leading us safely home.
Stephen Smith (@stephenandstar) serves on the Leadership Team at Houston’s First Baptist Church. He shepherds four teams within the church: Music, Multisite, Media, and Marketing. His passion is leading worship through song with his wife Star and leveraging their lives to see ministry multiplied in their home church and beyond.