My husband, of over sixty-five years, and I listen to older gospel hymns and drink in the truths of God. Even though Ed is unable to remember me as his wife, he remembers Jesus and the comfort of His Presence. His Journey will come to an end when God beckons and takes him by the hand. His legacy is a quiet faith, gentleness, and always serving in the background.
This man never played an instrument or sang to be heard, yet he encouraged his children in learning, playing, and singing songs. Now the strong pull of a hymn comforts and communicates God’s goodness to him in his dark confusing world of dementia. Now he often mouths the words of the songs as he listens.
As I listen beside him, one song captures my heart. I remember learning this same hymn, never understanding the deep compassion and adoration of our Lord in the words sung. After a week of visiting Ed, becoming a year older, watching and wondering what is next, I sing. Precious Lord, Hold my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn, Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light. Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.
With a start, I realize this is my prayer, and I am filled with wonder. I wonder who wrote these words in such a way he seemed to know my heart. I began searching and read of one man’s journey and how his story became his legacy of hope in Jesus Christ to many generations.
Thomas A Dorsey was born in Georgia in 1899. His father was a preacher. When Thomas was twelve years old, he left school and became a professional pianist, drawn by jazz and blues music. In the early 1920’s, he moved to Chicago to study composition and arranging. He began to play in nightclubs, writing one thousand blues and jazz works…only 200 of these were gospel songs. He brought blues and hymns together and is often called the Father of Gospel Music.
In 1925 Dorsey married Nettie Harper. A year later he experienced a nervous breakdown and was unable to work for two years. Nettie took a job in a laundry. Thomas was later spiritually healed in a church service. He committed himself more fully to God and Christian music. He wrote “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me.” It continues – “Ah, and when you saw me, I was on my way. When you reach that golden city, think about me, and don’t forget to tell the Savior what I said.”
In 1932, Dorsey became the choir director of Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, and continued for forty years. He saw how the Great Depression wore down the spirits of the American people. He viewed songwriting as his ministry and a way to give these people hope.
In August of 1932, Dorsey planned to travel to St. Louis to sing solos at a large revival meeting. His wife, Nettie, was pregnant with their first child and he didn’t to leave her in her ninth month. He kissed her goodbye, and left to sing. The second night of the revival meeting, after he sat down, he was given an envelope with a message. It contained four words…”Your wife just died!”
Dorsey remembered that evening as a surreal moment. “People were singing and clapping happily, and I wanted to cry out in pain and grief.” He hurried back to Chicago, and found Nettie had given birth to a baby boy. Joy in seeing his son, turned to a double-grief when his son died that same night. Dorsey buried them in the same casket. After the painful funeral service, he withdrew from music, his family and his friends. “I felt God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him anymore or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well,” he said.
In the middle of his despair, a friend visited Dorsey and brought him to a music room with a piano. Dorsey remembered, “It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. His fingers began to browse the familiar keys. He said, “I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I’d never heard of played before, and the words, Precious Lord, Hold my Hand, came into my head – they just seemed to fall into place.”
The second verse describes growing weary during a journey near the end of life or a difficult trial. The pull of ‘going home’ becomes strong and our words call out to our Lord with Dorsey…Hear my cry, hear my call, Hold my hand lest I fall. Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me Home.
The third verse begins – When the darkness appears…..Guide my feet, hold my hand. Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.
Where is home? Where is comfort? How can we find the assurance Thomas Dorsey found when he wrote such a song under immense grief?
Your unfailing love, O Lord, is as vast as the heavens; your faithfulness reaches beyond the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the ocean depths. You care for people and animals alike, O Lord. How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 36:5-7
Thomas Dorsey’s journey in this life ended in 1993 in Chicago. His legacy continues wherever people sing the songs God gave his Child, Thomas Dorsey.
Link to the Concordia Chamber Choir, directed by Thomas Dorsey, singing Precious Lord – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od5lY22b180&list=RDOd5lY22b180