Home History of Hymns: "Lead on, O Cloud of Presence"

History of Hymns: "Lead on, O Cloud of Presence"

“Lead on, O Cloud of Presence”
Ruth Duck
The Faith We Sing, No. 2234

Ruth Duck

Lead on, O cloud of Presence,
the exodus is come,
in wilderness and desert
our tribe shall make its home.

Our slavery left behind us,
new hopes within us grow.
We seek the land of promise
where milk and honey flow.*

I recall the first time that I sang this hymn. Knowing well Ernest W. Shurtleff’s hymn, “Lead on, O King Eternal” (1887), I was delighted to recall its images as I sang Ruth Duck’s creative paraphrase with current and inclusive theology.

While Dr. Duck has written many original hymns, several of her earlier efforts were inspired by historic hymn writers including Edward Plumptre (“Rejoice, You Pure in Heart”), Samuel Stone (“The Church’s One Foundation”), Isaac Watts (“Joy to the World”) and Charles Wesley (“Jesus Christ Is Risen Today”).

Dr. Duck (b. 1947), professor of worship at United Methodist-affiliated Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, was born in Washington, D.C. Her theological education includes Chicago Theological Seminary, the University of Notre Dame and Boston University School of Theology, where she received her Th.D. in 1989.

Before coming to Garrett-Evangelical in 1989, she served as pastor at United Church of Christ parishes in Illinois, Wisconsin and Massachusetts. Recently she was elected president of the North American Academy of Liturgy.

Dr. Duck has been a hymn writer since the early 1970s, writing about 170 hymns, metrical psalms and canticles. She describes the origins of this hymn:

“‘Lead on, O Cloud of Presence’ emerged while I was trying to adapt ‘Lead on, O King Eternal’ for Because We Are One People (1974). Both texts used the Exodus imagery (Numbers 9:15-23). The old hymn uses triumphalist military language, while the new hymn grows out of liberation movements. The cloud and fiery pillar are symbols of God’s presence, guiding people in uncertain times as they journey toward freedom.”

The author lived in Memphis, Tenn., from 1964-1969. She notes that she “was deeply influenced by Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s presence and death there. ‘Lead On’ undoubtedly grows out of that experience. So much has been accomplished toward racial justice and reconciliation and so much more needs to be done. The journey is truly our home!”

The incipit (opening line) of Dr. Duck’s original paraphrase was, “Lead on, O cloud of Yahweh.” The hymn appears in this form in the collection Everflowing Stream: Songs for Worship (1981), edited by Michael G. Bausch and Dr. Duck. She notes that Willis Elliot encouraged her to adapt this line to the current form out of “concern for Jewish-Christian dialogue.” The new version first appeared in one of her three hymn collections, Dancing in the Universe: Hymns and Songs (1992).

Among other themes in her hymns, Dr. Duck explores alternative language for God. She offers the theological root of this exploration: “I bring several central concerns to writing hymn texts. One is to develop new language that includes all people, moving beyond exclusively masculine images and pronouns. My first hymn texts [including ‘Lead on, O Cloud of Presence’] emerged from attempts to revise hymns that had much masculine imagery. At the same time, I am committed to using language that rings true to my own experience. Thus, I avoid language that is only experimental; a hymn text must express genuine faith experience.”

Each generation must learn to speak to the truth in its own terms or our language runs the risk of becoming the symbolic equivalent of a museum. Dr. Duck not only appreciates the heritage of the songs inherited from the saints, but also seeks to add new life, energy and creativity for our generation.

* © 1992 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.