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When the children of Israel were about to resume the march from Mount Sinai and Moses had received the command to lead the people into the unknown wilderness, we are told in Exodus that Moses hesitated.

“See,” said the great leader, “Thou sayest unto me, ‘Bring up this people’: and Thou hast not let me know whom Thou wilt send with me.” And God answered, “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.”

It was this sublime thought of the guiding presence of God that gave to John Henry Newman the inspiration for “Lead, kindly Light.”

There was much of tragedy in the strange life of Newman. He was born in London, the son of a banker, February 21, 1801. It is said that he was extremely superstitious as a boy, and that he would cross himself, after the custom of Roman Catholics, whenever he entered a dark place. He also came to the conclusion that it was the will of God that he should never marry.

He graduated from Trinity College, Oxford, at the age of nineteen, and four years later was ordained as a minister of the Church of England. He soon began to be attracted by Roman Catholic teachings and to associate with leaders of that communion. In 1833 he was in poor health, and determined to go to Italy. This was the year of the famous “Oxford Movement,” which was destined to carry so many high Anglicans into the Roman communion. While in Rome he came still further under the influence of the Romanists, 286 who lost no opportunity to take advantage of his perplexed state of mind. Leaving Rome, he went down to Sicily, where he was stricken with fever and was near death. After his recovery, his one thought was to return to his native shores. He writes:

“I was aching to get home; yet for want of a vessel was kept at Palermo for three weeks. At last I got an orange-boat bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed a whole week on the Mediterranean Sea. Then it was (June 16, 1833) that I wrote the lines: ‘Lead, kindly Light.’”

The hymn, therefore, may be said to be the work of a man who found himself in deep mental, physical, and spiritual distress. Newman was greatly dissatisfied with conditions within his own Church. In his perplexity he scarcely knew where to turn, but he had no intention at this time, as he himself states, to forsake the Church of England for the Roman Catholic communion. This step was not taken by him until twelve years later.

“Lead, kindly Light” was published for the first time in “The British Magazine,” in the month of March, 1834. It bore the title, “Faith—Heavenly Leadings.” Two years later he printed it with the title, “Light in the Darkness,” and the motto, “Unto the godly there ariseth up light in the darkness.” At a later date he published it under the title, “The Pillar of the Cloud.”

Newman ascribed its popularity as a hymn to the appealing tune written for it in 1865 by Dr. John B. Dykes. As to its poetic qualities there has been the widest divergence of opinion. While one critic has called it “one of the outstanding lyrics of the nineteenth century,” William T. Stead observes, caustically, that “It is somewhat hard for the staunch Protestant to wax enthusiastic over the invocation 287 of a ‘Kindly Light’ which led the author straight into the arms of the Scarlet Woman of the Seven Hills.”

The hymn has often been attacked on the ground that it is not definitely Christian in character. In this respect it is similar to Mrs. Adams’ famous hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” When the Parliament of Religions convened in Chicago a few years ago, Newman’s hymn was the only one sung by representatives of all creeds from every part of the world. Bishop Bickersteth of England, feeling the need of the Christian note in the hymn, added the following stanza:

Meantime along the narrow rugged path

Thyself hast trod,

Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,

Home to my God

To rest for ever after earthly strife

In the calm light of everlasting life.

This was done, said Bishop Bickersteth, “from a deep conviction that the heart of the belated pilgrim can only find rest in the Light of Light.” The additional stanza, however, has not come into general use.

Many interpretations have been given to the closing lines,

And with the morn those angel faces smile,

Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Some have believed that Newman by “angel faces” had in mind loved ones lost through death. Yet others are convinced that the author had reference to the actual visions of angels which are said to have come to him in youth, and the loss of which greatly grieved him in later life. Newman himself, in a letter written January 18, 1879, refused to throw further light on the lines, pleading that he had forgotten the meaning that he had in mind when the hymn was written forty-six years before.

Rome honored its distinguished proselyte by making him 288 a cardinal. It is said, however, that Newman was never again a happy man after having surrendered the faith of his fathers. He died at Birmingham, England, August 11, 1890, at the age of eighty-nine years.

A disciple of Newman’s, Frederick William Faber, may be mentioned in this connection, for the lives of the two men were strangely intertwined. Faber, who was the son of an English clergyman, was born at Yorkshire, June 28, 1814. He was graduated from Oxford in 1836, and became a minister of the English Church at Elton in 1843.

While at Oxford he came under the influence of the “Oxford Movement” and formed a deep attachment for Newman. It was inevitable, therefore, that he too should be carried into the Roman Church, which communion he joined in 1846. For some years he labored with Newman in the Catholic church of St. Philip Neri in London. He died in 1863 at the age of forty-nine years.

Faber wrote a large number of hymns, many of them before his desertion to the Church of Rome. Others, written after his defection, containing eulogies of Mary and petitions addressed to the saints, have been changed in order to make them suitable for Protestant hymn-books. His inordinate use of the word “sweet”, and his familiar manner of addressing Christ as “sweet Saviour” has called down harsh criticism on his hymns as sentimental and effeminate. However, such hymns as “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” “Hark, hark, my soul! angelic songs are swelling,” “O Saviour, bless us ere we go,” “O Paradise, O Paradise,” and “Faith of our fathers, living still” have probably found a permanent place in the hymn-books of the Church Universal, and will be loved and cherished both for their devotional spirit and their poetic beauty.


Faber wrote “Faith of our fathers” after his defection to the Church of Rome. In its original form the author expressed the hope that England would be brought back to the papal fold. The opening lines, as Faber wrote them, were:

Faith of our fathers! Mary’s prayers

Shall win our country back to thee.

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