By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (September 12, 2013) — Thomas Dorsey, known as the “father of gospel music,” wrote his most famous song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” after his wife and infant son died in childbirth in 1932.
It has since been published in more than 40 languages, consoling and encouraging millions of Christians around the world. One of them is Thomas Simonsson, a North Park University student from Sweden who suffered his own similar pain.
Simonsson, 26, was living in Sweden with his wife, and together they were anticipating the birth of their first child. A week before she was due, however, her heart gave out. She and the baby both died.
“My faith hit rock bottom,” Simonsson recalls. “It is a test of your faith. It puts your faith on the edge. Do you believe all the things you’ve been talking about? Do you believe in heaven?”
Then there was the song.
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.
It is one he still clings to. Simonsson requested that it be played as a musical background in the video that promoted the concert tour he took across Sweden this past summer. He traveled with two other students and a former classmate. During one stop on the tour he even gave a lecture about Dorsey.
Simonsson organized the tour because he wanted the people of his native Sweden to experience the power of gospel music just as he had. It was an ambitious tour by any standard—17 performances over two weeks.
In each performance the singers shared personal stories along with the music. “We didn’t want to do a show,” Simonsson says. “We wanted a time of worship.”
The stories included Simonsson’s own personal journey and reliance on Dorsey’s song.
Simonsson says gospel music is popular in parts of Sweden, but most people associate it only with large choirs. He had long dreamed of showing them a different aspect of the genre.
Fellow student Leslie Moore, who Simonsson declares is “a better singer than anyone I’ve heard in Sweden,” appreciated being able to express overseas what had been so important to her life in the United States. “As one who is increasingly dedicating myself to learning about the African diaspora, I was delighted to share what I know and have experienced with gospel music,” says Moore.
Like Simonsson, she also lectured on the art form, and he translated.
Planning was initially difficult and disheartening for Simonsson. None of the contacts he attempted in Sweden returned his emails or calls. “I just had to pray about it and give it all over to God,” he says.
Eventually, the emails started pouring in and his phone started ringing. “Even people I had not contacted but heard about it contacted me,” Simonsson says. “I had to turn people away.”
Mark Olson, director of church relations for North Park, told Simonsson the school would pay for much of the trip. The school recruits heavily in Sweden and has been expanding its efforts there. The quartet encouraged potential students in the audiences to consider attending the university.
Rehearsing presented a special challenge as one member of the quartet, former NPU student Angelica Bengts, had moved back to Sweden. She and Moore tried to rehearse via Skype.
“It was pretty funny!” Moore recalls. “There was a delay, so it was hard to be in sync. We decided to simply work out our individual parts and discussed song structure and arrangements.”
Ultimately the quartet, which also included NPU student Robert Cager, had only one rehearsal together in Sweden before embarking on the tour.
Still it proved an overwhelming success, say Simonsson. “Two churches even paid us more than they agreed to because the people enjoyed it so much.”
The group called their tour “A Gospel Journey,” which referenced their travels through Sweden but also the transformation that gospel music can accomplish in a person’s life.
“Gospel music is intrinsically healing and has that kind of energy because of where it stems from,” Moore says. “It was born out of tragedy yet intermingled with joy and triumph.”