Baptists and the American Civil War: March 26, 1862

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore

Some Baptist contributions during the war years take place away from battlefields. Words themselves are powerful, ever more so as the war nears the one year anniversary of the firing upon Fort Sumter.

Perhaps the most notable moment this month among Baptists of the North occurs on a Wednesday night at the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. A guest speaker, 28-year old Joseph Gilmore, graduate of Brown University and Newton Theological Seminary, preaches on Psalm 23, focusing on the sentence, “He leadeth me beside the still waters.” As Gilmore later recounts:

Those words took hold of me as they had ne­ver done be­fore, and I saw them in a sig­ni­fi­cance and won­drous beau­ty of which I had ne­ver dreamed.

It was the dark­est hour of the Ci­vil War. I did not re­fer to that fact—that is, I don’t think I did—but it may sub­con­sciou­sly have led me to real­ize that God’s lead­er­ship is the one sig­nif­i­cant fact in hu­man ex­per­i­ence, that it makes no dif­fer­ence how we are led, or whi­ther we are led, so long as we are sure God is lead­ing us.

At the close of the meet­ing a few of us in the par­lor of my host, good Dea­con Watt­son, kept on talk­ing about the thought which I had em­pha­sized; and then and there, on a blank page of the brief from which I had in­tend­ed to speak, I pen­ciled the hymn, talk­ing and writ­ing at the same time, then hand­ed it to my wife and thought no more about it. She sent it to The Watch­man and Re­flect­or, a pa­per pub­lished in Bos­ton, where it was first print­ed. I did not know un­til 1865 that my hymn had been set to mu­sic by Will­iam B. Brad­bu­ry. I went to Ro­ches­ter [New York] to preach as a can­di­date be­fore the Se­cond Bap­tist Church. Go­ing in­to their cha­pel on ar­riv­al in the ci­ty, I picked up a hymn­al to see what they were sing­ing, and opened it at my own hymn, He Lead­eth Me.

Gilmore’s hymn becomes the most enduring Baptist-penned hymn written during the Civil War.

Sources: The story of the hymn, “He Leadeth Me” (link); image (link)