A few days ago we celebrated the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. It is interesting that his namesake, Martin Luther (1483-1546), was a theologian, priest, poet and musician. Above all we remember him as the great reformer who struggled against the religious corruption of his era. His most famous musical piece, which most denominations still have in their hymnals, is A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. (In Singing the Living Tradition – our hymnal – we have the tune but with different words.) Comparing this to ML King it is interesting to note that Dr. King’s most beloved hymn was Precious Lord, Take My Hand. The concept was similar; there was/is a nameless, formless source of energy beyond him to which he turned for support and guidance.
The person who wrote Precious Lord was Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993) who is known as the father of gospel music. Mr. Dorsey wrote a lot of music and did a lot of touring in the early part of the twentieth century. He had a ‘regular’ job, that of Director of Music at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. As the story goes, Mr. Dorsey was on tour when he received the news that his wife had died. In his deep anguish he penned Precious Lord. In part it reads: “Precious Lord, take 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.” One can easily see how these words would be meaningful for Dr. King. Indeed, it can be meaningful for all of us.
Yes, I know that Unitarian Universalists are not fond of the ‘Lord’ reference. However, let’s not throw out the ‘baby with the bath water’. I would like to think that we can have enough respect for Mr. Dorsey and his artistry so as not to let his personal and sincere religious language deter us from the human expression. All of us have challenges, losses, griefs and pains. It is the feeling of the music, the expression of those griefs, to which we can relate. It is a well-crafted gospel tune. Dorsey also wrote the words which mirror the confidence and humility that he possessed. And these are qualities that can lead us to a better place. We are all heading “to the light”. Perhaps we can sing it to each other during these challenging times.