This hymn was published in 1876 during a time in history where much emphasis was given to the social Gospel. The Civil War had ended and the United States was in the pangs of the industrial revolution. Because of this the individual was often exploited for the sake of economic progress. Many American clergymen became champions of social causes. One such leader was Washington Gladden, known as one of our country’s finest liberal clergymen.
Washington Gladden was born on a farm in Potts Grove, Pennsylvania, on February 11, 1836. After graduating from Williams College in 1859, he was ordained to the Congregational Churches ministry. While he ministered
in the pulpit, he also spent much time fighting against such political groups as the Tweed Ring which dominated New York’s political corruption in Tamany Hall. Eventually the hall was dismantled in the following elections and “Boss” Tweed served a fifteen year prison sentence. In 1882, Gladden was called to the First Congregational Church in Columbus, Ohio, where he served for thirty-two years. He became a powerful voice in the pulpit as he continued to preach about “the gospel to the social, political and economic life of America and the world. ” He not only preached but was also an influential writer as well as arbitrated in national strikes and disputes. In 1883 he negotiated the Telegraphers’ strike and the Hocking Valley Coal Strike the following year. He believed that it was the Church’s responsibility to “elevate the masses not only spiritually and morally, but to be concerned about their social and economic welfare as well. ”
Throughout his life Gladden was the object of sharp criticism from many leaders of the business world as well the conservative sector of the church. When he attacked John D. Rockefeller for donating $100, 000 for what he believed to be “tainted” money to the Congressional Church Foreign Missions Board, his own denomination turned against him. He also received criticism from conservative clergymen when he preached that the Bible was merely a book of religion. Two original stanzas of this hymn are no longer included reflecting Gladden’s feelings towards those he felt were his persecutors:
O Master let me walk with Thee before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me bear the sting of spite, the men who hide Thy light.
The sore distrust of souls sincere who cannot read Thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude who dimly guess that Thou art good.
The tune “Maryton” was composed by an Anglican minister, H. Percy Smith, for John Keble’s hymn, “Son of My Soul. ” It first appeared in “Church Hymns with Tunes” published in 1874. “O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee” was not meant to be used as a hymn but as a devotional meditation. It first appeared as a poem in a publication called “Sunday Afternoon” of which Gladden was editor under the caption, “Walking with God. ” When it was eventually suggested that the poem be used as a hymn, Dr. Gladden chose the Maryton tune for his text. He is best remembered for this hymn.