The melody is credited to Dorsey, drawn extensively from the 1844 hymn tune, "Maitland". "Maitland" is often attributed to American composer George N. Allen (1812-1877), but the earliest known source (Plymouth Collection, 1855) shows that Allen was the author/adapter of the text "Must Jesus bear the cross alone," not the composer of the tune, and the tune itself was printed without attribution for many years. "Maitland" is also sometimes attributed to The Oberlin Social and Sabbath School Hymn Book, which Allen edited, but this collection does not contain music. This tune originally appeared in hymnals and tune books as "Cross and Crown"; the name "Maitland" appears as early as 1868. Dorsey said that he used it as inspiration. Dorsey wrote "Precious Lord" in response to his inconsolable bereavement at the death of his wife, Nettie Harper, in childbirth, and his infant son in August 1932. (Mr. Dorsey can be seen telling this story in the 1981 gospel music documentary Say Amen, Somebody.) The earliest known recording was made on February 16, 1937, by the Heavenly Gospel Singers (Bluebird B6846). "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" is published in more than 40 languages.
It was Martin Luther King Jr.'s favorite song, and he often invited gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights rallies to inspire crowds; at his request she sang it at his funeral in April 1968. King's last words before his assassination was a request to play it at a mass he was due to attend that night. Opera singer Leontyne Price sang it at the state funeral of President Lyndon B. Johnson in January 1973, and Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia Jackson's funeral in 1972. Franklin also recorded a live version of the song for her album Amazing Grace (1972) as a medley with "You've Got a Friend". It was sung by Nina Simone at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, three days after King's assassination. That evening was dedicated to him and recorded on the album 'Nuff Said!. It was also performed by Ledisi in the movie and soundtrack for Selma in which Ledisi portrays Mahalia Jackson. It was also performed by Beyoncé at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards on February 8, 2015.
Many notable musicians have recorded "Take My Hand, Precious Lord". It was recorded by Mahalia Jackson on Tuesday March 27, 1956, on the album Bless This House (Columbia Records CL 899) with The Fall-Jones Ensemble: Mildred Falls (piano), Ralph Jones (organ).Jim Reeves' version of the song may be one of the best known of all. It was released as the 'B' side of his hit single "This World is Not My Home" in 1965.
"Take My Hand, Precious Lord" was inducted into the Christian Music Hall of Fame in 2007. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2012, Mahalia Jackson's recording of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" was honored with the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.