Lead Me Home

In gratitude for the contributions of Black Americans to the Church.
A tribute for Black History Month

Pastor Chris Lenhart | February 23, 2023

August 1932, in the city of Chicago it is hot. Tommy Dorsey and his wife Nettie are preparing for the birth of their first child. Nettie is in the final month of her pregnancy, but Tommy is needed in St. Louis as one of the featured soloists in an upcoming revival meeting. A highly talented and in-demand jazz artist, Dorsey had made a successful transition into the world of gospel music.


In moments like these life presents us with tension. The Great Depression had brought our nation to its knees, bringing with it significant economic turmoil. Dorsey felt the tug of needing to fiscally provide for his young family, pushing and pulling against the tug that begged his physical presence were his wife to go into labor. Dorsey decided he would go, and the next night, he put on a performance to be remembered. He wrote home to give an update; "Dear Nettie, old dear, I'm having a pretty good time and success. I'll be home about the last of the week. Take care of yourself, bee [sic] sweet." (1)


At some point before the end of the week, Tommy found himself confronted by a young messenger boy delivering a Western Union telegram. In moments like these, life changes suddenly and dramatically forever. The contents of the telegram: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED… (2) Nettie had delivered a son into the world, and in the process of the birth, she had passed away. Shortly after, Dorsey's newborn son died as well. Utter shock would give way to frequent bouts of depression, how could anyone recover from such devastating news? 


Overwhelmed by his grief, Tommy’s first instinct was to return to the jazz that had made him a household name throughout the midwestern states in the 1920’s. Instead, as discipled and shepherded through his grief by local Christian professors and mentors, Dorsey turned to the tunes of familiar hymns from his childhood. In the depths of his grief he penned the words, 


“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone, Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home…” 


It’s Thursday evening, April 4th, 1968. Ben Branch has just arrived in Memphis. Branch is the musical director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On this fate-filled evening, he is scheduled to direct the Breadbasket Orchestra and Choir. As he leaves for the event, he passes by the parking lot of the Lorraine Hotel where a man calls out to him from a second story balcony… "Man, look, tonight, I want you to play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight like you never played it before…I want you to play it pretty tonight.” Branch nodded in response, “I’m going to do that" (3)


It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was calling down to Branch and immediately following their conversation, the bullet of an assassin ended the life of one of America’s most bright and precious lights. Dr. King’s final request to hear the words of ‘Precious Lord.’ 


“When my way grows drear, precious Lord linger near, When my light is almost gone, Hear my cry, hear my call, Hold my hand, lest I fall, Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home…”


10:30 am, April 9th, 1968. A weakened, tired, and grieving Mahalia Jackson rises to approach a microphone in front of the solemn and surrendered audience that had gathered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. At 56 years old, Mrs. Jackson is ailing from debilitating health conditions. Mahalia is compelled to sing. “I want you to hear my cry, hear, hear my call, then hold my hand Lord, Lord hold my hand, and don’t let me fall now, oh, take my hand, precious Lord lead your child home.”


Present in the audience that day along with 1300 other friends, family, and dignitaries is a talented 25-year-old soloist named Aretha Franklin. Mahalia and Aretha would both contribute to the music shared at the private funeral service of Dr. King. Mahalia, though, is a close friend to Dr. King and his family and she is gifted with a unique and powerful ability to draw on the emotion of the moment. Her music is worship and ministry, a sacrifice of praise, a broken and poured out offering. The tremendous grief that engulfs her spirit requires her to approach this performance with a supernatural measure of courage and strength. 


Jackson had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. King, leading the hymns that directly preceded his nation-moving, ‘I have a dream’ speech, one that Jackson herself had influenced and encouraged Dr. King to share with the world. Her words motivated Dr. King to lay aside his notes, and deliver the speech that was in his heart, not on the pages. (4) A timeless speech, aimed at an eternal Kingdom, a dream that still today tolls the bells of liberty, justice, and equality holding our nation, our churches, and our leaders accountable to live and practice an ethic that we might describe as, “Every nation, tribe, and language.” 


“When the darkness appears and the night draws near, and the day is past and gone, at the river I stand, Guide my feet, hold my hand, Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”


January 1972, and a large crowd has gathered at the historic Arie Crown Theatre. In 1967 the theater was severely damaged by fire. For nearly five years, it was subject to a series of repairs and renovations before finally re-opening in January of 1972; just in time for the funeral of Mahalia Jackson. Jackson died, at 60 years old, from complications related to heart disease. 6,000 people would attend her funeral, held on January 31st. Another 60,000 would visit her casket as it lay in state at the Rivergate Auditorium.


Performing at the funeral of Jackson, Aretha Franklin. Now 29 years of age, Franklin takes to the stage to pay tribute. Aretha and Mahalia had shared a deep and special bond. Mahalia and Aretha were both familiar with the acute pain of family brokenness and early childhood trauma. When Mahalia was only 5 years of age, her mother passed away. Aretha was 9 when her mother, Barbara died of complications stemming from a heart attack. Mahalia, keenly aware of Aretha’s pain would remain close to her, aiding in her upbringing, investing in her life, and shepherding Aretha’s talent and love of music.


This was Aretha’s opportunity to publicly remember and give thanks to one who had meant so much to her as spiritual mother, mentor, vocal coach, and friend. The lyrics she would sing that day in honor of Mahalia, she would sing again forty years later at the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Washington Memorial.


“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone, Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home…” 


One song, countless lives. Countless lives, one Church. With God’s help might we continue to grow in gratitude, humility, and love. By Jesus’ indwelling presence might we continue to learn and practice the attitudes and behaviors of sacrifice and surrender, laying down our lives for one another as Jesus laid down his life for us. By the work of the Holy Spirit, might we continue to be moved towards postures and habits of lament, confession, repentance, and forgiveness. I offer these words to reflect my debt of gratitude for a Christian community that has given so much, contributed so much, and exemplified so much of Christ’s character. Thank you.


1.  How One Of Gospel's Essential Songs Gave 'Selma' Its Soul : The Record : NPR

2.  Discipleship Ministries | History of Hymns: "Precious Lord, Take My… (umcdiscipleship.org)

3.  MLK requested a song minutes before his assassination, and that tune comforted millions (dallasnews.com)

4.  How Mahalia Jackson Sparked Martin Luther King Jr.’s 'I Have a Dream' Speech (biography.com)