Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Day 2

Day 2 – Lead Kindly Light

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

In April 1833, John Henry Newman traveled around Italy with good friends. He had not been well when he left home. Sick and exhausted, he was troubled by the state of the Church of England as it veered closer and closer to the liberal and unorthodox philosophies of the day. He had hoped time away from his responsibilities as a vicar would be restorative.

While in Rome, Newman was burdened with a sense that he had work to be done to save the Anglican Church. It was not enough to complain about the wayward direction of the church’s leaders. He had to take decisive action. But what?

He parted company with his friends and traveled on to Sicily, initially calling it “the nearest approach to Paradise of which sinful man is capable.” Soon, he was overcome with typhoid fever. Though he was desperately ill, he was determined to make the journey back to England. 

Traveling by foot and mule across the countryside, he and his hired servant Gennaro stayed at run-down inns and hostels. At times he was too feverish to go any further. Worse than any physical pain, Newman believed God was fighting against his “self will.” He had been arrogant and stubborn. When he returned to England, he decided, he should spend time as an “unworthy penitent” and refrain from preaching. 

By early May, he was so ill that his servant thought he would die. Newman was convinced he wouldn’t, because he had not “sinned against the light” and that “God had some work” for him yet to do.

Newman continued on, thanks to Gennaro, kind strangers they met along the way, and village doctors. As soon as he felt moderately well, Newman pressed on again, making it almost 14 miles before he collapsed again. Gennaro half-carried him to lodgings in the town of Castro Giovanni. Newman was unable to move again for three weeks. He now suffered from a “gastric fever,” with symptoms of cholera, and endless bowel and urinary troubles. He was even bled by an attendant and endured a course of leeches. He spent the days and nights in a feverish delirium. The heat was oppressive and local tonics and remedies were unhelpful. His lips cracked and his fingernails turned almost black. 

Still weak, he dared to make the three-day journey to Palermo, leaning on Gennaro and hobbling with a stick. It was now the end of May and Newman was “aching to get home” – but he was stuck in Palermo for yet another three weeks due to lack of transportation. Though he was staunchly anti-Roman Catholic at the time, he found comfort in visits to the local churches.  Years later, he would remember how they had impacted him. 

At last, he was able to board a boat carrying a load of oranges to Marseilles, France. But his progress was thwarted yet again by a lack of wind and heavy fog. The ship was forced to anchor in the straits of Bonifacio, between Corsica and Sardinia. On June 16th, while suffering anew from physical, emotional and physical despair, Newman penned these words… 

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one s
tep enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still
Wilt lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Initially called “Faith-Heavenly Leadings” then “Light In The Darkness” and “The Pillar of the Cloud” (from Exodus 13:21-22), Newman finally decided upon “Lead Kindly Light” as the formal title. If it was meant to serve as a prayer, then God answered it. The fog lifted, the winds carried Newman to France, where he journeyed to Dieppe, catching a steamship to Brighton. He finally arrived in Oxford on July 9th

Five days later, Newman’s good friend, the Reverend John Keble, preached a powerful sermon on “National Apostasy,” which served as a called-to-action for those who desired to save the Church of England from itself. Newman now knew what God had called him to do. 

The Oxford Movement had begun as a determined effort to bring the Church of England back to its Catholic roots. Newman’s efforts there put him in the public eye and sent him on yet a different kind of journey that would eventually lead him to the very Church he had rebelled against.

What became of “Lead Kindly Light”? In 1867, 22 years after Newman embraced the Roman Catholic Church, clergyman Dr. John B Dykes, a popular composer known for the hymns, “Holy, Holy, Holy”, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” and “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee,” put Newman’s words to music. And so the much-loved hymn is known and sung to this very day, echoing the themes many of us know well: the pain of pride and need for repentance, the pull of the earth and the draw of heaven, and the overwhelming desire for the power of God to take us once again to loving, angelic faces as we return home. 


Dear Father, in the necessary pains and sufferings of my journey, with all of my lost footings and setbacks, I pray that You will show me Your Light so I may proceed step-by-step in the direction You want me to go. Lead me, dear God, to the work You have chosen for me to do now and, ultimately, to that heavenly morning where I will rejoice in You for eternity. Amen.

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Written by Paul McCusker

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