STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

LEAD, KINDLY LIGHT, AMID THE ENCIRCLING GLOOM

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 Lead, kindly Light, amid the 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.
2 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.
3 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.

Rev. (afterward Cardinal) John Henry Newman, 1833

NOTE– The text is taken from Newman’s Verses on Various Occasions, 1867; and agrees with that in Lyra Apostolica.

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

This much-loved hymn is always spoken of as having been written by Cardinal Newman, and the fact that Protestants love to sing it is used to show the real unity of Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. But as a matter of fact the hymn was not written by Cardinal Newman, nor even by a Roman Catholic. It was written by the Rev. John Henry Newman, a young clergyman of the Church of England, twelve years before he went into the Church of Rome; and at a time when, as he himself tells us, he had no thought of leaving the Church of England. Indeed, Cardinal Newman said in 1882 to Lord Ronald Gower (who reports it in his Old Diaries) that the hymn did not represent his feeling at that time. “For we Catholics ” he said, with a quiet smile, “believe we have found the light.”

The hymn is so much a part of its author’s life that the story of his hymn and of his life must be told together. The son of John Newman, a London banker, he was born, on February 21st, 1801, within sound of Bow Bells. He was an imaginative boy, and so superstitious that he used constantly to cross himself on going into the dark. He never could explain what started him in such a practice, for his surroundings were those of Evangelical Protestantism, and his own beliefs were Calvinistic, including the opinion that the Pope was anti-Christ. At his conversion, when fifteen years old, his mind became filled with that sense of communion with God which possessed him all his life, and made outward things seem as nothing to him. A curious imagination took hold of him at the same time that it was God’s will that he should live a single life. This feeling never left him.

Newman went up to Oxford, and was graduated from Trinity College in 1820; remaining there first as a fellow, and then as a tutor, of Oriel. In 1824 he was ordained, and in 1828 was appointed vicar of St. Mary’s Church, at Oxford. Then he began to preach those sermons which had so extraordinary an influence, and are thought by many the greatest of the century. Meantime his religious opinions were gradually changing under those High Church influences at Oxford which had their beginnings in Keble’s Christian Year. Especially marked was the influence of his friend and fellow tutor, Hurrell Froude. Froude changed Newman’s hostility to the Church of Rome to deep admiration, and taught him to look upon the Reformation as a mistake. “He fixed deep in me,” says Newman, “the idea of devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and he led me gradually to believe in the Real Presence.”

To this period of change and unrest the hymn belongs. The anxieties that lay behind it and the circumstances out of which it sprang are fully narrated in Newman’s fascinating Apologia pro Vita Suo; and certainly no one would care to learn of them from any other source:

“While I was engaged in writing my work upon the Arians great events were happening at home, which brought out into form and passionate expression the various beliefs which had so gradually been winning their way into my mind.... The great Reform agitation was going on around me as I wrote. The Whigs had come into power; Lord Grey had told the Bishops to set their house in order, and some of the Prelates had been insulted and threatened in the streets of London. The vital question was, how were we to keep the Church from being liberalized? There was such apathy on the subject in some quarters, such imbecile alarm in others; the true principles of Churchmanship seemed so radically decayed, and there was such distraction in the councils of the Clergy.... With the Establishment thus divided and threatened, thus ignorant of its true strength, I compared that fresh vigorous Power of which I was reading in the first centuries.... I said to myself, ‘Look on this picture and on that’; I felt dismay at her prospects, anger and scorn at her do-nothing perplexity. I thought that if Liberalism once got a footing within her, it was sure of the victory in the event. I saw that Reformation principles were powerless to rescue her. As to leaving her, the thought never crossed my imagination; still I ever kept before me that there was something greater than the Established Church, and that was the Church Catholic and Apostolic, set up from the beginning, of which she was but the local presence and the organ. She was nothing unless she was this. She must be dealt with strongly or she would be lost. There was need of a second reformation.

Rev. John Henry Newman
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“At this time I was disengaged from college duties, and my health had suffered from the labor involved in the composition of my Volume.... I was easily persuaded to join Hurrell Froude and his Father, who were going to the south of Europe for the health of the former.

“We set out in December, 1832.... I went to various coasts of the Mediterranean; parted with my friends at Rome; went down for the second time to Sicily without companion, at the end of April;... the strangeness of foreign life threw me back into myself.... England was in my thoughts solely, and the news from England came rarely and imperfectly. The bill for the Suppression of the Irish Sees was in progress, and filled my mind.... It was the success of the Liberal cause which fretted me inwardly....

“Especially when I was left by myself, the thought came upon me that deliverance is wrought not by the many but by the few, riot by bodies but by persons.... I began to think that I had a mission.... When we took leave of Monsignore Wiseman, he had courteously expressed a wish that we might make a second visit to Rome; I said with great gravity, ‘We have a work to do in England.’ I went down at once to Sicily, and the presentiment grew stronger. I struck into the middle of the island, and fell ill of a fever in Leonforte. My servant thought I was dying, and begged for my last directions. I gave them, as he wished; but I said, ‘I shall not die.’ I repeated, ‘I shall not die, for I have not sinned against light, I have not sinned against light.’ I have never been able quite to make out what I meant.

“I got to Castro-Giovanni, and was laid up there for nearly three weeks. Towards the end of May I left for Palermo, taking three days for the journey. Before starting from my inn in the morning of May 26th or 27th, I sat down on my bed and began to sob violently. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer him, ‘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. Then it was that I wrote the lines, ‘Lead, kindly light,’ which have since become well known. We were becalmed a whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio. I was writing verses the whole time of my passage. At length I got to Marseilles, and set off for England.”

We can now understand the hymn. We can see into the shadows that encircled him who wrote it,– the sickness and depression, the loneliness, the dark thoughts of the Church he still clung to. We know his sense of being called by God to do a work at home without seeing what its end might be. We hear his answer to the call in his renunciation of all pride of leadership into God’s hands, his cry for only light enough to see one step ahead, his confidence that God will find his path. “For years,” Newman said in another connection, “I must have had something of an habitual notion, though it was latent, and had never led me to distrust my own convictions, that my mind had not found its ultimate rest, and that in some sense or other I was on journey, During the same passage across the Mediterranean in which I wrote ‘Lead kindly light,’ I also wrote the verses which are found in the Lyra under the head of ‘Providences,’ beginning ‘When I look back.’ This was in 1833; and, since I have begun this narrative, I have found a memorandum under the date of September 7th, 1829, in which I speak of myself as ‘now in my rooms in Oriel College, slowly advancing, etc., and led on by God’s hand blindly, not knowing whither He is taking me.’”

The date of the hymn is June 16th, 1833. On the Sunday following Newman’s return from his southern trip it happened that Mr. Keble preached at Oxford his famous sermon on “The National Apostasy.” “I have ever considered and kept the day,” Newman says, “as the start of the religious movement of 1833.”

Newman had returned in time to become the center of that very powerful movement to undo the work of the Reformation in England. But he grew so much out of sympathy with all that Protestantism stands for, that, in 1845, he asked to be received into the Roman Catholic Church. His secession was a great blow to many of his friends, to none more than to Keble, to whom it was a life-long sorrow. It caused also intense excitement and bitterness of feeling, the famous Apologia having been written in answer to charges of insincerity made by Charles Kingsley.

Autograph Lines of the Hymn
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Newman continued a devout Roman Catholic, and in 1879 was made a cardinal by the Pope, dying in 1890. It was a strange career of a wonderfully gifted man. But no one now doubts his sincerity or the depth and purity of his religion.

Newman’s verses were first printed in The British Magazine for March, 1834, and then in 1836 in the Lyra Apostolica, a little book in which the contributions to the Magazine of Newman, Keble, and other kindred spirits, were gathered up. In 1846 the verses were included by Longfellow and Johnson in their Book of Hymns. Unfortunately they had found them in a newspaper as beginning “Send kindly light,” and so they printed them. In 1865 Dr. Charles S. Robinson printed them with the same opening in his Songs for the Sanctuary. He explained (in The Congregationalist, 1890) that the change was made by a “literary friend” who first brought the hymn to his notice, and who assumed that the form “Lead, kindly Light” was a typographical error, arising from the close resemblance of the words Lead and Send in careless manuscript. It is surely an instance of loyalty to friendship that Dr. Robinson persisted in so misprinting the hymn in all editions of that popular book up to the day of his death. And so the hymn stands in the more recent issues by the Century Company, now owning the plates of the book. The present familiarity and popularity of the hymn began with its inclusion in 1868 in the Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern. Cardinal Newman’s connection with hymnody by no means ends with this hymn. From his long poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” has been taken the fine hymn beginning, “Praise to the Holiest in the height” (The Hymnal, No. 429). He also published two collections of Latin hymns taken from the Breviaries, and made numerous and excellent translations from them.

SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) What is the meaning of “kindly Light”? Newman first printed his verses with the title, “Faith-Heavenly Leadings”; in 1836 with the title, “Light in the Darkness,” and the motto, “Unto the godly there ariseth up light in the darkness ”; since then with the title, “The Pillar of the Cloud.”

(2) Nothing could have been farther from their author’s thoughts than the use of his verses as a hymn. What are the qualities in verses so personal, so closely related to individual experience and circumstances, that make them suitable to be sung by a whole congregation? The Rev. George Huntington has given us (in his Random Recollections) the modest explanation of Cardinal Newman himself: “I had been paying Cardinal Newman a visit.... I happened to mention his well-known hymn ‘Lead, kindly Light,’ which he said he wrote when a very young man.... I ventured to say, ‘It must be a great pleasure to you to know that you have written a Hymn treasured wherever English-speaking Christians are to be found; and where are they not to be found?’ He was silent for some moments and then said with emotion, ‘Yes, deeply thankful, and more than thankful’; then, after another pause, ‘But you see it is not the Hymn, but the Tune, that has gained the popularity! The Tune is Dykes’s, and Dr. Dykes was a great Master.’”

The Lux Benigna of Dr. Dykes was composed in August, 1865, and was the tune chosen for this hymn by the committee preparing the Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern. Dr. Dykes’ statement that the tune came into his head while walking through the Strand in London presents a striking contrast with the solitary origins of the hymn itself.

(3) “The fourth verse of the hymn” is often inquired for. It has only three. But Bishop Bickersteth printed in his Hymnal Companion, 1870, a fourth verse of his own composition, as follows: –

Meantime along the narrow, rugged path
   Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Savior, lead me home in childlike faith,
   Home to my God,
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

He intended to express his conviction that “the heart of the belated pilgrim can only find rest in the Light of Light.” The author of the hymn protested against the addition, and many others joined in the protest. Can the addition be justified?

(4) What is the meaning of the last two lines of the hymn, “And with the morn,” etc.? No doubt those who sing the hymn will interpret these lines as expressing their hope of being reunited with those they have loved and lost by death. But it does not follow that such was the author’s original meaning. Would a theologian have referred to his glorified friends as angels? Attention has been called to Newman’s statement that after his awakening to God in his sixteenth year, he was strongly conscious both in his waking and sleeping moments of the presence of angels. That consciousness he subsequently lost, greatly to his sorrow; and the suggestion is made that these lines expressed his hope of regaining it when the night had gone. Another suggested meaning is that in its darkness and perplexity the soul had lost the angel faces not only of Fancy and Hope and youthful Confidence, but of those divine forms of Faith and Assurance which had accompanied the believer in the early fervor of his belief. When quite an old man Cardinal Newman was asked by letter to explain the meaning of these lines, to which letter he returned this curious answer: –

      “THE ORATORY, January 18, 1879,

“My dear Mr. Greenhill,

“You flatter me by your question; but I think it was Keble who, when asked it in his own case, answered that poets were not bound to be critics, or to give a sense to what they had written; and though I am not like him, a poet, at least I may plead that I am not bound to remember my own meaning, whatever it was, at the end of almost fifty years. Anyhow, there must be a statute of limitation for writers of verse, or it would be quite tyranny if, in an art which is the expression, not of truth, but of imagination and sentiment, one were obliged to be ready for examination on the transient state of mind which came upon one when home-sick, or sea-sick, or in any other way sensitive or excited.

       “Yours most truly,

       “JOHN H. NEWMAN”

Cardinal Newman
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