Tragic event inspired timeless gospel song

Published 7:30 am Sunday, February 27, 2022

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Thomas Andrew Dorsey was playing the piano professionally at age 12. Born in Georgia in 1899, the African-American musician was the son of a Baptist minister.

In the 1920’s, he moved to Chicago where he married Nettie Harper in 1925. Biographers tell us his piano playing and song-writing skills earned him the name, “Georgia Tom” and he earned royalties from his hit songs.

A year after Thomas and Nettie married, he experienced a nervous breakdown and was unable to work for two years. His wife took a job in a laundry to support them. At the invitation of his sister-in-law, he attended a church service where he experienced spiritual healing and committed himself more fully to God.

He soon wrote his first gospel song, “If You See My Savior, Tell Him That You Saw Me.” In 1932, he became choir director at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church, a position he held for the next 40 years.

In August 1932, Thomas Dorsey was scheduled to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting in St. Louis. He told Nettie, who was pregnant with their first child, goodbye and made his way to St. Louis.

The next night, as he finished playing, a Western Union telegram was delivered with an urgent message, “Your wife just died.” He returned home to find Nettie had given birth to a boy. “I swung between grief and joy,” he recalled. Then, later that night, the baby also died.

Afterwards, Dorsey wrote, “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.” In his despair, Thomas Dorsey sat alone in a music room with a piano.

Soon, he found himself playing a melody, and words “seemed to fall in place.” Dorsey reportedly sang the song for his friend, Gospel singer Theodore Frye. Then Frye’s choir sang it the next Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church and soon people across the country were singing it.

His song reminds me of the comforting words of King David, “Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the Lord upholds him with His hand.” (Psalm 37:42) And I think of Jesus’ promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

Thomas Andrew Dorsey, who wrote 200 songs during his lifetime, penned one of the greatest gospel songs of all time. It’s been recorded by legends like Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley and it’s been translated into 32 languages. His song speaks to every generation with its timeless message of hope and faith:

“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.”

Another African-American hymn writer, Charles Tindley, reminds us about the troubles and trials of life and how “We’ll Understand It Better By and By.” But until then, Tindley writes these words of wisdom, “Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there.”