top of page
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.

June 16 John Henry Newman and Lead Kindly Light

In 1833 the young Anglican priest John Henry Newman, while traveling on a ship from Italy to France, wrote the words to the hymn, “Lead Kindly Light Amid the Encircling Gloom.” It was to become famous and there are many stories of how it was sung spontaneously in times of danger


Originally an evangelical priest in the Church of England, Newman was a very gifted communicator, and he became the "Select Preacher" at Oriel College, Oxford university. However a difference with the head of the college, as to the "substantially religious nature" of a college tutorship became acute and prompted his resignation. Newman then accompanied a friend and his son on a tour in southern Europe to recover the sons ill health. They visited Gibraltar, Malta, the Ionian Islands and, subsequently, Sicily, Naples and Rome. In a letter home he described Rome as "the most wonderful place on Earth", but the Roman Catholic Church as "polytheistic, degrading and idolatrous". Instead of accompanying his friends home in April, Newman returned to Sicily alone. He fell dangerously ill with typhoid fever at Leonforte, recovered after about three weeks, with the conviction that God still had work for him to do in England.

He left Palermo for Marseille in an orange boat, which was becalmed in the Strait of Bonifacio. Here, Newman wrote the verses "Lead, Kindly Light" which later became popular as a hymn. He describes how he came to it after his recovery, Before starting from my inn, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, "I have a work to do in England." I was aching to get home, yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the churches, and they calmed my impatience, though I did not attend any services. At last I got off in an orange boat, bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed for whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio, and it was there that I wrote the lines, It became a hymn of four verses – the first verse reads…. Lead, Kindly Light, which have since become so well known.// Lead, Kindly Light, amidst 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.

Returning to Oxford, Newman became drawn to the High-Church tradition of Anglicanism and active in the Oxford Movement who wished to return to the Church of England to many Catholic beliefs and liturgical rituals from before the English Reformation. In this, the movement had some success. Newman started, apparently on his own initiative, the Tracts for the Times, from which the movement was subsequently named "Tractarian". Its aim was to secure for the Church of England a definite basis of doctrine and discipline. After publishing his controversial "Tract 90" in 1841, Newman later wrote, "I was on my death-bed, as regards my membership with the Anglican Church An interval of two years then elapsed before Newman was received into the Catholic Church on 9 October 1845 by Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist. The personal consequences for Newman of his conversion were great: he suffered broken relationships with family and friends, attitudes to him within his Oxford circle becoming polarised. He joined the Oratorians and continued writing and revisited Oxford after an interval of thirty-two years when his old college elected him an honorary fellow on the same day Pope Pius IX died. Pius had mistrusted Newman but his successor, Pope Leo XIII, was encouraged by the Duke of Norfolk and other English Catholic laymen to make Newman a cardinal, despite the fact that he was neither a bishop nor resident in Rome

Lead Kindly Light has made a big cultural impression, perhaps most poignantly at the largest mining disaster in the Durham Coalfield at West Stanley Colliery, known locally as "The Burns Pit", when 168 men and boys lost their lives as the result of two underground explosions. However, a group of 34 men and boys in the Tilley Seam had found a pocket of clean air led by Deputy Mark Henderson. Sadly a few of them panicked and left the group, they died instantly after inhaling the poison gas. The remainder sat in almost total darkness, when one of them began humming the Hymn "Lead Kindly Light". In no time at all, the rest of the miners joined in with the words, "Lead kindly light amidst the encircling gloom, lead thou me on, The night is dark, and I am far from home". These 26 men were rescued after 14 hours, four others were later rescued. In other extremes situations "Lead, Kindly Light" was sung, by a soloist, Marion Wright, on the Titanic during a hymn-singing led by the Rev. Ernest C. Carter, shortly before the ocean liner struck an iceberg in 1912. In the trenches in the first world war and also by the sister of Corrie ten Boom, and other women as they were led by the S.S. Guards to the Ravensbrück concentration camp during the Holocaust. The hymn was also a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi.


bottom of page