Friday, May 29, 2009

Break Thou the Bread of Life

Praise for the Lord #59

Words: Mary A. Lathbury, 1877
Music: "BREAD OF LIFE", William F. Sherwin, 1877

Mary Aremesia Lathbury (1841-1913) taught art and French in schools in Vermont and New York, but was best known as a poet in the summer programs at Chautauqua, New York. She was published in journals associated with the temperance movement, and also in children's magazines such as Wide Awake, edited by fellow hymnwriter Mary B.C. Slade.("Lathbury") Lathbury wrote both "Break Thou the bread of life" and "Day is dying in the west"(PFTL#119) at Chautauqua during 1877.("Break Thou")

The hymn as Lathbury originally wrote it, and as it stands in many hymnals, is just two verses. An interesting aspect of this song, in relation to the Churches of Christ in the U.S., is the frequent use of this as a communion hymn. Though it is not entirely clear that the "bread" here can be equated with the bread of the Lord's table, the hymn has been used in this context for so long that it is almost awkward to use it in any other context.

Stanza 1:
Break Thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,
As Thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;
Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!

The expression "bread of life" is obviously from Jesus' teaching in John chapter 6, verses 25-66, where He calls Himself the "bread of life" and the "living bread". On the preceding day He had fed the crowds through miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish, so the immediate context was obvious to His listeners. Just as God had provided bread in the wilderness for Israel, so Jesus had provided food miraculously when it was most needed and there was none (or at least extremely little) to be found.

In this second day's discussion, Jesus taught the people that His "living bread" was superior to manna, because it addressed spiritual and eternal needs rather than the merely physical and temporal.(John 6:32-35,49-50) His listeners did not seem to get the point (or perhaps some did not want to get the point), so Jesus became even more emphatic: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."(John 6:53)

It seems obvious enough that Jesus is prefiguring the communion ritual in a sense, because He would make the same equation at the Last Supper: "Take, eat; this is My body... Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood..."(Matthew 26:26-28) Of course, in both instances He uses language that is figurative, just as the elements of communion themselves are figurative of a much greater reality. Accepting the redeeming work of Christ's death, and living the new life of His resurrection, are the realities:

But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit, who lives in you.(Romans 8:10-11)

Every Christian can relate to the desire to know Christ better, as Psalm 42:1 says, "As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God." But when Lathbury speaks of seeking Christ "beyond the sacred page", what does she mean? Does she ask for a revelation beyond the written Scriptures? Ellis Crum, editor of Sacred Selections, changed this line to "within the sacred page", to emphasize that our knowledge of Christ is through His revealed word. The message of Christ is of paramount importance, as He said Himself: "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him."(John 14:23) "The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day."(John 12:48) How else can we keep His word, but to read His recorded words in the "sacred page"?

Lathbury may have meant, however, that we need to "know Christ" on a level beyond mere factual information, and in this we can agree. It is possible to know the words of Christ without being changed by them; it is possible even to follow the principles Christ taught in moral living, without surrendering oneself to Him. We come to know Him "beyond the sacred page" when we apply His words in Scripture to our hearts, meditate on them, and live them in our everyday lives. As we continue to walk with Him, we come to understand better--through experience--the meaning of His words.

Stanza 2:
Bless Thou the truth, dear Lord, to me, to me,
As Thou didst bless the bread by Galilee;
Then shall all bondage cease, all fetters fall;
And I shall find my peace, my all in all.

Here Lathbury takes a slightly different turn; where the first stanza expresses a longing to receive more of the "Christ-life" (as C.S. Lewis put it), the second stanza speaks more specifically of receiving the truth itself. The third line especially seems to reference Christ's promise that, "If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."(John 8:31-32)

This seems to turn the subject more toward the reception of the word and away from any suggestion of the communion, as might be assumed from the first stanza alone. There is a desire for the freedom that comes through the truth (really, through the obedience to the truth), and a celebration of the peace that follows. Peace is a concept that has to be qualified, of course; Jesus stated bluntly, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword."(Matthew 10:34) The truth will sometimes bring us conflict and trouble, as Jesus goes on to describe. But His peace is nonetheless real: "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."(John 14:27) He gives us peace between ourselves and God, and this gives us peace within. Christ "fills everything in every way"(NIV), as our "all in all".(Ephesians 1:23)

The following two stanzas were added by Alexander Groves in 1913, first appearing in the Wesleyan Methodist Magazine.("Break Thou") The first of these stanzas may sound familiar; it was retained in Lloyd Sanderson's Christian Hymns No. 2 (Nashhville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1948) and Christian Hymns III (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1966), and also is included in Ellis J. Crum's Sacred Selections for the Church (Kendallville, IN: Sacred Selections, 1960). (Crum also wrote a new text to Sherwin's tune, #289 in Sacred Selections, called "The Breaking of Bread". This is most definitely a communion hymn; perhaps Crum meant to provide it as an alternative, considering the ambiguity of "Break Thou the bread of life" in that context.)

Thou art the bread of life, O Lord, to me,
Thy holy Word the truth that saveth me;
Give me to eat and live with Thee above;
Teach me to love Thy truth, for Thou art love.

This stanza makes a nice conclusion to the hymn; it is unfortunate that most of the later hymnals among the Churches of Christ have omitted it. It also tends to affirm the interpretation of this hymn as an appeal for better understanding of the word, more appropriately sung before a Bible study or sermon than as a communion hymn.

The second of Groves's stanzas I have never seen in a hymnal among the Churches of Christ, reflecting as it does the doctrine that the Spirit must operate miraculously on the sinner to allow understanding of the Scriptures:

O send Thy Spirit, Lord, now unto me,
That He may touch my eyes, and make me see:
Show me the truth concealed within Thy Word,
And in Thy Book revealed I see the Lord.

In Acts chapter 8, the Ethiopian riding home in his chariot needed help understanding the Scriptures, by his own admission.(Acts 8:31) But the Spirit--rather than working in some miraculous way upon his mind--sent him Philip, an evangelist who "preached Jesus to him."(Acts 8:35)

About the music: William Fiske Sherwin (1826-1888)
was a student of Lowell Mason,("Sherwin") and his straightforward, no-nonsense writing is in Mason's style. Sherwin wrote a simple, functional tune that works well for the text. It is in four phrases, the second of which begins by copying the first but extends its range and ends on the dominant chord (SOL-TI-RE) of the key. The third phrase leads up to the leading tone of the scale (TI), then the fourth phrase tops the melody off with a high DO and comes back down to rest. The gradually increasing tension through the second and third phrases makes the fourth phrase seem very logical and satisfactory.

Sherwin also wrote the music for "Sound the battle cry"(PFTL#594) and "Day is dying in the west"(PFTL#119). The latter song is another text by Mary Lathbury, and written the same year; Sherwin was the first music director at the Chautauqua program, and no doubt he and Lathbury were acquainted there.("Sherwin")


"Break Thou the Bread of Life." Cyberhymnal.

"Mary Artemesia Lathbury." Cyberhymnal.

"William Fiske Sherwin." Cyberhymnal.


  1. Thanks for the interesting analysis of Mary Lathbury's hymn, "Break Thou the Bread of Life." I'm with you on most points, but I'm surprised you reject the illuminating ministry of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

    The Apostle Paul deals with that in First Corinthians 2. The natural man (i.e. without the new birth) cannot comprehend spiritual things (vs. 9, 14). "But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit" (vs. 10).

    As to the Ethiopian in Acts 8 not needing the illumination of the Spirit because he had Philip: Yes, the Spirit of God gifts certain ones to be teachers, and works through them. But that doesn't exclude the operation of the Spirit in the one who is taught.

    The Apostle John speaks of the anointing of the Holy Spirit, which seems to refer to His indwelling, a ministry which begins and conversion (cf. II Cor. 1:21), and "abides" (I Jn. 2:27). And he says that "the same anointing teaches you concerning all things" (NKJV). Kenneth Wuest's Expanded Translation in keeping with a number of versions, puts the word "all" with "you," rather than making it a modifier of "truth." He renders the phrase as, "All of you have the capacity to know [spiritual truth]."

    I believe the Holy Spirit's work of giving us spiritual insight and discernment is a significant one. It does not rule out the ministry of Bible teachers (or else there would be no need of the gift of teaching, Rom. 12:7). But it enables us to grasp and apply what is taught, and filter out error.

  2. The stanza beginning "O send Thy Spirit, Lord," was used in Tillit S. Teddlie's Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 (1965). Like you, I long questioned the suitability of the stanza since I too find no scriptural basis for the concept that the Spirit works directly on the hearer. However, I think that the stanza can be sung from the standpoint of expressing a desire that the Spirit teach us through what we read in the word.