Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Lead Me, Lord'

History of Hymns: 'Lead Me, Lord'

By C. Michael Hawn

Samuel Sebastian Wesley Engraving
Samuel Sebastian Wesley

“Lead Me, Lord”
by Samuel Sebastian Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 473

Lead me, Lord, lead me in thy righteousness;
make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord, thou Lord only,
that makest me dwell in safety.

Occasionally, a selection of congregational music originated as a choral anthem. Such is the case with “Lead Me, Lord” by Samuel Sebastian (S.S.) Wesley (1810–1876). Given the number of times that the name Samuel appears in the Wesley family tree, it may be helpful to summarize Samuel Sebastian’s ancestry and distinctive musical contributions.

S.S. Wesley was the third male in four generations to bear the name Samuel. His great-grandfather was Samuel, Sr. (1662–1735), the husband of Susanna Annesley Wesley (1669–1742). He is represented in The United Methodist Hymnal by the words of his hymn “Behold the Savior of Mankind” (293), the most prominent of his texts. Skipping a generation, his father was Samuel Wesley (1766–1837), the youngest surviving son of Charles Wesley (1707–1788), the famous hymn writer, and Sarah (Sally) Gwynne Wesley (1726–1822). Samuel Sebastian Wesley was the first of seven surviving children of Sarah Sutter and Samuel Wesley. His father, a musical prodigy, gave his son the middle name Sebastian in honor of his hero, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Because of his father’s musical success and activity as a performer, the younger Samuel (S.S.) developed a stronger bond with his mother. Evidence suggests, however, that he formed a close bond with his father later in life.

While not a musical prodigy like his father, S.S. Wesley also demonstrated considerable musical talent. He became a chorister at the Chapel Royal, St. James’s Palace, London, at age nine. At St. James’s Palace, he studied piano and voice with the master of the choristers, William Hawes (1785–1846). In addition to singing on Saturday evenings and Sundays for services at St. James, he also sang at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Hawes complimented S.S. Wesley by saying that he was “the best boy he ever taught” (Young, 2007, p.41). Hawes was also involved in the operatic scene in London, and Samuel participated in Hawes’s operatic productions as his assistant, accompanist, and assistant choral director at the English Opera House.

As Georg Frederic Handel (1685–1759) had done two generations before him, Hawes prepared oratorios during Lent when his opera performances were forbidden. Samuel served as organist during this season between 1830–1832. The result was that Samuel was exposed to various musical styles. His compositional and organ study with his father led to the development of improvisational skills influenced by Thomas Adams (1785–1858). Samuel was said to be a “master of the developing art of imitating orchestral effects on the organ” (Young, 2007, p. 41). Thoroughly immersed in the world of church music, he put his skills to use by serving as the organist at three parish churches.

In 1832, he departed London to begin a forty-four-year career as the cathedral organist successively at Hereford, Exeter, Winchester, Gloucester, and Leeds Parish Church. Although he grew in compositional skills and performance experience, his positions ended disappointedly. While at Exeter, he entered Oxford University, where he received A.B. and Mus.D. degrees in 1839. In 1850, he received his initial academic appointment as the first Professor of Organ at The Royal Academy of Music. He was much better known as an organist, attracting large crowds, than as a composer. His organ playing was compared favorably with that of Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847). (Horton, n.d., n.p.)

S.S. Wesley was disheartened by the low level of musical standards in provincial cathedrals and the lack of support for cathedral music. Thus, he waged a campaign to improve the situation, which included articulating his views on the subject in a forthright pamphlet, A Few Words on Cathedral Music and the Musical System of the Church (1840). His knowledge of music history, a relatively new discipline, was highly sought after. The first two significant music histories in the English language were published by Charles Burney and John Hawkins in 1776. He gave lectures on church music history in 1844 to large audiences at the Liverpool Collegiate Institution. These lectures, with musical examples, began with Gregory and extended to the nineteenth century.

S.S. Wesley did not share the Methodist leaning of his grandfather Charles and his granduncle, John. As a professional musician, he was firmly rooted in the Church of England. Among his publications were three that encompassed his church music skills and interests: A Selection of Psalms and Hymns Arranged for the Public Services of The Church of England (1864), for which he served as musical editor and arranger, a collection of hymn tunes, chants, and anthems, The European Psalmist (1872), and A Selection of Psalm Tunes: Adapted Expressly to the English Organ with Pedals, No. 1 (1834, rev. 1842).

Finally, S.S. Wesley was a skilled composer with broad stylistic interests and expertise in Renaissance music, especially Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) and Henry Purcell’s (1659–1695) English Baroque style. He had at his command the oratorios of Handel, Mozart’s classical-era innovations, and newer choral styles of the earlier nineteenth century. He liked to score vocal works with a lush, thick voicing (SSAATTBB). Regretfully, his compositions were not highly appreciated during his lifetime, and he continued to live in the shadow of his talented father.

His health began to deteriorate in the 1870s, and he played his last service on Christmas Day, 1875, at Gloucester Cathedral, dying four months later. The notice of his death in the Musical Times described him as “the son of an even more celebrated composer than himself”—faint praise at best.

While several of his anthems are still in the repertoire, such as “Blessed be the God and Father” (1833) and “Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace” (c. 1850), he is best known for his many hymn tunes, especially AURELIA, now sung to “The Church’s One Foundation” by Samuel Stone, and HEREFORD, most often paired with Charles Wesley’s “O Thou Who Camest from Above.”

“Lead Me, Lord”

The selection that appears in hymnals is the final movement of a verse-anthem (soloists alternating with chorus), “Praise the Lord, O My Soul” (1861) for SSATB soloists, SSATB chorus, and organ. Wesley composed this extended work to celebrate the new organ at Holy Trinity Church, Winchester. The twelve-minute extended anthem explores a full range of chromatic harmonies, choral counterpoint, and an independent organ part that, appropriate to the occasion, demands a skillful performer. The section included in hymnals today is the final movement.

Compared to the preceding movements, the last section is subdued and straightforward, thus lending itself to possible congregational adaptation. While Wesley maintains the verse-anthem structure (alto and soprano soloists with interspersed chorus) in this section, he eliminates the quasi-virtuosic complexity found in the previous sections by narrowing the vocal tessitura to the lower register. The chorale-like setting minimizes chromaticism and limits counterpoint to passing tones and suspensions with the organ score doubling the vocal parts.

The anthem draws on parts of Psalms 103, 3, 4, and 5. The entire text, a libretto consisting of a pastiche of psalter citations, reflects an extensive reordering of the psalter verses with significant deletions and alterations by the composer. This is apparent when placed side-by-side with the corresponding psalter passages from the Book of Common Prayer (1672):

S.S. Wesley Anthem Text

Book of Common Prayer (1672)

Praise the Lord, my soul, and all that is within me praise His holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. (Ps. 103:1)

I laid me down and slept, and rose up again: for the Lord sustained me.

I lie down and go to sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. (Ps. 3:5).

O hearken unto the voice of my calling, my King and my God. Early in the morning will I direct my prayer to Thee, and will look up.

Hearken to my cry for help, my King and my God, for I make my prayer to you. In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you. (Ps. 5:2–3)

Praise the Lord, my soul, and all that is within me praise His holy Name.

Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy Name. (Ps. 103:1)

My voice shalt Thou hear betimes. O Lord: early in the morning will I direct my prayer to Thee. Give ear to my words, O Lord.

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you. (Ps. 5:3) Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my meditation. (Ps. 5:1)

O hearken Thou unto the voice of my cry. Give ear, O Lord, give ear to my words, O Lord. Thee will I make my prayer.

Let all them that trust in Thee rejoice: they shall ever be giving thanks.

Let all them rejoice because Thou defendest them. They that love Thy Name shall be joyful in Thee.

Hearken to my cry for help, my King and my God (Ps. 5:2a) Give ear to my words, O LORD. (Ps. 5:1a) for I make my prayer to you. (Ps. 5:2b)

But all who take refuge in you will be glad; they will sing out their joy for ever. (Ps. 5:13)

You will shelter them, so that those who love your Name may exult in you. (Ps. 5:14)

My voice shalt Thou hear betimes, O Lord: Early in the morning will I direct my prayer to Thee. Give ear to my words, O Lord.

In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice;
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you. (Ps. 5:3) Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my meditation. (Ps. 5:1)

As for me, I will come into Thy house, in the multitude of Thy mercy: and in Thy fear will I worship toward Thy holy temple.

But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (Ps. 5:7)

Lead me, Lord, lead me in Thy righteousness:

Make Thy way plain before my face.

For it is Thou, Lord, Thou, Lord, only
that makest me dwell in safety.

Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness,
[because of those who lie in wait for me;]
make your way straight before me. (Ps. 5:8)

[I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep;] for only you, LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Ps. 4:8)

The result of S.S. Wesley’s reconfiguration of the psalm sources is a new psalm of supplication. Excised by Wesley’s conflation of texts are the imprecatory judgments against one’s enemies found throughout Psalms 3, 4, and 5. What remains are meeker supplicatory prayers with hints of praise.

This excerpt appears to have come from the popular sacred choral collection, The Concord Anthem Book (Concord Series No. 13), page 134, published in 1922 under the editorship of musicologist and music educator Archibald T. Davison (1883–1961) and Unitarian hymnologist Henry Wilder Foote (1875–1964). Davison provides a four-bar introduction and scores the alto and soprano solos as tutti. The organ part, virtually doubling the voices, remains intact as composed by S.S. Wesley.

The Hymnbook (Presbyterian) in 1955, edited by noted organist and church music professor David Hugh Jones (1900–1983), seems to have been the first to place the response into the congregational repertoire. It appears in E-flat rather than the original D Major with the copyright notice from the Concord Anthem Book in the credits. Jones deleted the solo passages while maintaining the simple four-part chorale. As a result of this publication, this selection is included in approximately forty Protestant hymnals in the United States, primarily as a devotional prayer response.


Archibald T. Davison and Henry Wilder Foote, The Concord Anthem Book: Forty Anthems for the Use of Mixed Voice Choirs in Protestant Churches (Boston: E.C. Schirmer. 1925).

Chris Fenner, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” Hymnology Archive, https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/samuel-sebastian-wesley (accessed June 2, 2022).

Peter Horton, “Samuel Sebastian Wesley,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/samuel-sebastian-wesley (accessed June 3, 2022).

Samuel Sebastian Wesley, “Praise the Lord, O My Soul” (1861).

Carlton R. Young, Sacred Harmony—The Musical Wesley Family: An Exhibition Celebrating the Tercentenary of the Birth of Charles Wesley (Dallas: Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, 2007).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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