Thomas Andrew Dorsey was playing the piano professionally at the age of 12. Born in Georgia in 1899, the African-American musician was the son of a Baptist pastor.
In the 1920s he moved to Chicago where he married Nettie Harper in 1925. Biographers tell us that his talents as a pianist and songwriter earned him the name “Georgia Tom” and he touched royalties on his hit songs.
A year after Thomas and Nettie got married, he had 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 You Have Seen Me”. In 1932, he became choir director at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago, a position he held for the next 40 years.
In August 1932, Thomas Dorsey was to be the guest soloist at a large revival meeting in St. Louis. He said goodbye to Nettie, who was pregnant with their first child, and drove to St. Louis.
The following night, as he finished playing, a telegram from Western Union was delivered with an urgent message, “Your wife has just died.” He returned home to find that Nettie had given birth to a boy. “I oscillated between sorrow and joy,” he recalls. Then, later that night, the baby also died.
Afterwards, Dorsey wrote, “I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve him or write gospel songs anymore. I just wanted to go back to this world of jazz that I knew so well. In his desperation, Thomas Dorsey sat alone in a music room with a piano.
Soon he found himself playing a melody and the words “seemed to fall into place”. Dorsey reportedly sang the song for his friend, gospel singer Theodore Frye. Then Frye’s choir sang it the following Sunday at Ebenezer Baptist Church and soon people across the country were singing it.
Its song reminds me of the comforting words of King David: “Even if he falls, he will not be completely 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 in his lifetime, wrote one of the greatest gospel songs of all time. It has been recorded by legends like Mahalia Jackson and Elvis Presley and has 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, let me stand, I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m worn out. Through the storm, through the night, Lead me to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, take me home.
Another African-American hymn writer, Charles Tindley, reminds us of life’s troubles and trials and how “We’ll understand it better from time to time.” But until then, “Take your burdens to the Lord and leave them there.
Jan White is a wife, mother and freelance writer living in Andalusia. His email address is [email protected]