Precious Lord, take my hand
Text. This hymn was born out of terrible tragedy in the life of gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey (1899–1993). In an interview for the album Precious Lord: Recordings of the Great Gospel Songs of Thomas A. Dorsey (Columbia Records, 1973), he described the circumstances of the song’s composition:
I went out to go to St. Louis one morning, to work in a revival. I left my wife asleep in bed, got in the car, and I went along. She was going to become a mother, and I was anticipating a great happiness and great joy on my return. But I got to St. Louis, and about the second night, in the meeting, a telegram boy came and brought me a telegram. I opened it, and it read, “Your wife just died. Come home.” I couldn’t finish the meeting. Finally, I got home to Chicago the next morning, and it was so, I found it all true, they never moved the body. And that chilled me, killed me off; I wanted to go back to blues. But after putting my wife away, and the baby in the same casket, I went to the old Poro College, in the music room there, Mr. [Theodore] Frye and I, just browsing over the keys, and seemingly, the words like drops of water from the crevice of a rock above seemed to drop in line. With me on the piano, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand; I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home.”
Now, God has blessed. I have another family: I have a wife, a son, a daughter, and a grandson about seven, eight years old. And the Lord has lead me, and he will lead you. And I hope, some way, somehow, if you don’t sing “Precious Lord, take my hand,” you will learn to sing it, and sing it with a feeling and a fervor.
Dorsey’s wife, Nettie Harper, died on 26 August 1932. Dorsey had started his career as a blues musician, but turned his attention to gospel music in the 1920s, thus the reference to returning to the blues. The song was not copyrighted until 1938, when it was published as sheet music by Thomas Dorsey’s own company (Fig. 1), with three stanzas. The original setting was for solo voice and piano/organ.
An additional verse, “Precious Lord, I love your name,” was recorded by Thomas Dorsey in 1982 or 1983 at an annual meeting of the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, a convention Dorsey started in 1933. This recording was included on the album Say Amen, Somebody (DRG Records, 1983). These additional words are not well known but can be found in hymnals such as the African American Heritage Hymnal (Chicago: GIA, 2001).
Tune. The music to this hymn is an adaptation of a much older tune known as MAITLAND. The tune is often erroneously attributed to George N. Allen and/or his Oberlin Social and Sabbath School Hymn Book (1844), but Allen’s collection did not contain music and Allen is not known to be a composer of hymn tunes. Allen’s involvement is in the adaptation of the text “Must Jesus bear the cross alone,” to which MAITLAND was frequently set before becoming associated with Dorsey’s text.
The tune first appeared twice in 1855. One of these was Henry Ward Beecher’s influential Plymouth Collection of Hymns and Tunes (NY: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1855 | Fig. 2). In this printing, the tune was called CROSS AND CROWN, credited as “Western Melody,” and set to “Must Jesus bear the cross alone,” text credited to Allen.
That same year, the tune also appeared in Church Music (Rochester: E. Darrow & Brother, 1855 | Fig. 3), edited by Leonard W. Bacon for St. Peter’s Church, Rochester, NY. Here, the tune was called CROSS AND CROWN, paired with “Must Jesus bear the cross alone”; no other identifying information is on the page.
The name MAITLAND was assigned and popularized via The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book (NY: Mason Brothers, 1859 | Fig. 4), edited by Lowell Mason and others. In the tune index, this was credited only as “American tune.”
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
30 January 2019
Thomas A. Dorsey, The Precious Lord Story and Gospel Songs (1970s): WorldCat
Thomas A. Dorsey, “The birth of ‘Precious Lord,'” Guideposts, October 1987, pp. 81-82.
Carlton Young, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 561.
Bert Polman, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1998), p. 662-663.
Paul Westermeyer, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 637-639.
Carl P. Daw Jr. “Precious Lord, take my hand,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 795-796.
“Precious Lord, take my hand,” Hymnary.org: