In May of 1862, the Civil War was entering its second year and America was reeling. A young Joseph Gilmore headed to the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia to fill the pulpit for two weeks amidst the confusion and uncertainty. His text for the evening service was the 23rd Psalm.
As he progressed through the passage, he found himself unable to get past the words of the second verse:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
“‘He Leadeth me.’ This is what the people need to hear. God will lead us through this time.” He stayed on that verse and preached it like never before.
After the service, Joseph and his wife gathered with a group of others and conversation centered around the message. While others talked, Joseph took a pen and began to write. Even as he chatted with the crowd his words took shape.
“He leadeth me, O Blessed thought, O words with heavenly comfort fraught...”
The words flowed and while still conversing, he handed his poem to his wife and never gave it another thought. She, however, saw the beauty in it. She made the decision to send it to a Boston paper where it was published and noticed by William Bradbury, the great hymn composer. Bradbury added music and a chorus to the poem while Joseph remained completely unaware.
Three years later, Joseph was preaching in Rochester, NY, when he opened the hymnal to see what they would be singing that day. To his surprise, the hymnal opened up to his own song! It was a song that he didn’t even know existed! He was thrilled when his wife told him her story.
His hymn helped the country deal with the pain and anxiety of the war and it has settled in as a great hymn of the faith. Below are the original words and a link to a version of the hymn.