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History of Hymns: "O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee"

"O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee"
Washington Gladden
The UM Hymnal, No. 430

Washington Gladden

O Master, let me walk with thee
in lowly paths of service free;
tell me thy secret, help me bear
the strain of toil, the fret of care.

In the years following the Civil War and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the social gospel emerged. Washington Gladden (1838-1918) was one of the most distinguished clergymen of his era and a leader in the social gospel movement.

This hymn was published in 1879 in three eight-line stanzas in Sunday Afternoon, a magazine prepared by the author, under the title “Walking with God.” C.H. Richards discovered the poem and included it in his 1880 hymnal, Christian Praise, without the original second stanza:

O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide thy light.
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that thou art good.

The remaining two eight-line stanzas were placed into four four-line stanzas and paired with the durable Victorian tune MARYTON. The hymn has become one of the most significant devotional hymns of this era.

The hymn addresses Christ as “Master” both at the beginning of stanza one and end of stanza four. The more commonly used reference to Christ, “Lord,” indicates a relationship of a feudal noble to a vassal, while “Master” perhaps implies more of a reciprocal respect between a teacher and disciple.

Throughout the remaining stanzas, the singer makes several petitions to the Master. In stanza one, we petition for the privilege of walking with Christ “in lowly paths of service.” We want to understand the “secret” of how we, as we serve Christ and others, can “bear the strain of toil, the fret of care.”

In stanza two, we petition Christ for sensitivity toward “the slow of heart”—those who do not recognize the wisdom offered by the Master. We ask to be taught how to guide those with “wayward feet” along “the homeward way.”

Stanza three turns inward, as we request to be taught “thy patience” so that we may dwell with Christ “in closer, dearer company.” Our labor will maintain a “faith [that is] sweet and strong” and our “trust” in the Master will help us “triumph... over wrong.”

In the final stanza, we look “far down the future’s broadening way” with “hope” and therefore have “peace” that only the Master “canst give” when we dwell with him.

Gladden was a native of Pennsylvania, and served churches in New York and Massachusetts before accepting a call to First Congregational Church, Columbus, Ohio, a parish he served for 32 years. Educated at Owego Academy and Williams College, he was the moderator of the National Council of Congregational Churches from 1904-1907. He served as one of the editors of the Pilgrim Hymnal (1904).

As editor of the Independent, he made important contributions to the cause of social justice. While a pastor in Massachusetts, Gladden began preaching about labor-management problems, encouraging cooperation between employers and employees.

This theme aroused opposition from those who felt the role of a minister was “to save souls, not to regulate business.” Furthermore, he challenged the idea that the Bible was inerrant in matters of science and history.

Hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that “he found his fellow-clergymen without courage to follow him, for heresy trials were beginning in the Congregational Church.” In this context, the meaning of the excised stanza cited above makes sense.

From the Ohio pulpit, Gladden found willing listeners to his message at the State University of Columbus. He received invitations to deliver lectures at a number of universities including the Yale Divinity School. His tracts, Social Facts and Forces (1897) and Organized Labor and Capital (1904), were very influential.

Perhaps this hymn is a paradox. Few singers realize that behind the relatively peaceful words of Gladden’s poem, sung to a placid Victorian melody, one can find the witness of a champion for social justice.

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