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Precious Lord, Take My Hand: A Song for the Sorrowful

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Although I’ve never sung this hymn at church, I became intrigued by it when I learned it was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorites. Not only was it sung by Mahalia Jackson at his funeral, the Civil Rights leader had requested that it be played at his Memphis rally the night before his assassination.[1] 

“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was first played publicly at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1932 when Daddy King (Martin Luther King, Sr.) was the pastor, but the song’s composer was neither a member of the church nor in attendance when it was played. He was home in Chicago, mourning the loss of his wife and child.  

Known as the “Father of Black Gospel Music,” Thomas Andrew Dorsey (1899-1993) became a Christ-follower in 1928 after suffering a nervous breakdown, and during his lifetime he wrote at least 200 gospel songs and over 800 jazz and blues pieces. 

Four years after his conversion, Dorsey’s wife, Nettie, was in her last month of pregnancy; however, Dorsey was scheduled to be the soloist at a large revival meeting in St. Louis around the time of her due date. While he was playing on stage at the revival, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram informing Dorsey that his wife had died. Upon his return to Chicago, Dorsey learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy, but shortly after Nettie’s death, their son also died.[2] Dorsey buried both Nettie and their child in the same casket.

The loss and grief dealt a major blow to Dorsey’s faith.[3] He questioned God’s character and no longer had a desire to serve Him. In the days after the funeral, a friend took him to a nearby music school, letting him sit down at the piano, and this song is the result. Dorsey wrote the lyrics, adapting the “Maitland” tune used in the hymn “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” 

The song captures the angst of someone suffering and reaching out to Jesus in the midst of their tragedy. The first stanza uses the image of a stormy night; the second refers to a dark path; the third stanza depicts the worshiper standing at a river at night. In each stanza, the worshiper petitions, “Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” It’s an expression of hope and of trusting God’s nearness and guidance, even in our darkest moments. It recognizes that God alone can sustain us when our “way grows drear” and when the “light is almost gone.” 

While there’s no explicit reference to Scripture and Dorsey makes no connections to specific Bible verses when telling about the night he wrote the song, the hymn conveys a Psalm 23 type of hope: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps 23:4).  

As Christ-followers, we walk by faith, not by feelings. We may feel “tired, “weak,” and “worn,” but we don’t suffer alone. Neither do we suffer without hope. We have the hope of God’s presence, which Dorsey recognized as the tonic he needed to endure his grief. While we may not always feel God’s nearness, we trust His Word when it says that He will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5), and like Dorsey, we too can discover just how “precious” our Lord is in times of pain and suffering. 

We also have the hope that this life is not all there is, for when we are standing at the river when our “night draws near and the day is almost gone,” we as Christians know our Savior will be there with us to guide our feet, hold our hand, and take us home where we will live with Him forever (Rev 21:2–4).

 

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near

When my light is almost gone

Hear my cry, hear my call

Hold my hand lest I fall

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near

And the day is past and gone

At the river I stand

Guide my feet, hold my hand

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

 

Precious Lord, take my hand

Lead me on, let me stand

I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone

Through the storm, through the night

Lead me on to the light

Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home (lead me home)

 

[1]Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.by Stephen B. Oates

[2]Say Amen, Somebodydirected by George T. Nierenberg (1982)

[3]“The Father of Gospel Music Wanted to Be a Secular Star” by Kathryn Kemp, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/2018/may/father-gospel-music-thomas-dorsey.html

Ashley Chesnut serves as the Associate Singles 20s/30s Minister at The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. She has a Master of Divinity from Beeson Divinity School and a Certificate of Biblical Counseling from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. While Ashley has a passion for discipling young women, she also loves her city, and when she’s not at the church or meeting with girls, you can probably find her at the farmer’s market or trying some new local restaurant.
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