The Welsh people have a centuries-old reputation of being perhaps the most enthusiastic singers in the world. During the great spiritual revivals of Wales, the preaching was sometimes interrupted by the spontaneous singing of a congregational hymn. Welsh hymn-singing festivals still take place around the world.
One of Wale’s best-known hymn-writers was William Williams (1717-1791). He had planned to become a doctor, but the direction of his life was changed under the preaching of the Welsh evangelist Howell Harris. Williams was ordained in the Church of England, but his fervent evangelistic preaching drew much opposition, and he left the established Church. Wanting to minister throughout Wales, he became an itinerant evangelist. During his nearly 50 years of preaching and singing, he traveled more than 95,000 miles on foot or horseback in all kinds of weather, often facing violent opposition.
Williams was a fiery preacher and gifted poet who wrote over 800 hymns in the Welsh language. His hymns were sung throughout the country, helping to kindle the revival fires of 18th -century Wales. They were also used to teach people to read since people wanted to be able to read the songs. This furthered the spread of the gospel. Williams was to Wales what Watts and Wesley were to England. He was known as the “Sweet Singer of Wales.”
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” originally written in Welsh in 1745, was translated into English in 1771. The text is usually sung to “Cwm Rhondda,” meaning “low valley of Rhondda” in Welsh. This tune was composed by John Hughes in 1907 for the annual Baptist singing festival held in Chapel Rhondda, near Pontypridd, Wales.
Many hymn historians believe the hymn reflects the difficulties Williams experienced as an itinerant evangelist. It is expressed as a prayer for God’s guidance and provision through difficult times, recalling the incidents in Exodus after the Children of Israel left Egypt. God supplied all their needs and led them day and night during their forty years of wandering. God parted the waters of the Jordan River so that they could safely enter into Canaan, their promised land (Joshua 3:1-17). The Lord still leads faithful believers through life to their Promised Land, heaven. Knowing this, Christians can joyfully sing “songs of praises, I will ever give to thee.” The 4th stanza, omitted from many hymnals, expresses a deep longing for heaven as vanity is all that is seen in this world. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. (Colossians 3:2)
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