History of Hymns: 'Be Present at Our Table, Lord'
By Raquel Godinez and C. Michael Hawn
“Be Present at Our Table, Lord”
by John Cennick
The United Methodist Hymnal, 621
Be present at our table, Lord;
be here and everywhere adored;
thy creatures bless, and grant that we
may feast in paradise with thee.
All Christian denominations partake of the Eucharist in one way or another. There might be differences of doctrine and theology, but we all recognize the importance of this sacrament. When we participate in and sing of the Lord’s Table, we remember the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us when he died on the cross. “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” by John Cennick (1718-1755) is a hymn that encourages us to remember the promises we have received.
John Cennick was born in Reading, Berkshire, England on December 12, 1718. He was a serious young man, subjecting himself to numerous spiritual and ascetic rituals including
. . . starving the body to purify the soul. For some time he ate nothing more than dry bread, potatoes, acorns, the leave of trees, crab-apples, and even grass. He gave money to the poor. He refrained from gross sins. He attended the Sacrament. He went to church twice a day. Yet the more he strove, the more he seemed to be led captive by the devil (Johansen, 88).
Perhaps this spiritual unrest accounts for his spiritual journey through several Christian traditions. His family members were Quakers, but Cennick grew up in the Church of England. He was a land surveyor in Reading until 1739, when he met the Wesleys and joined their movement. In 1740, John Wesley appointed him as a teacher for a school in Kingswood, England. However, due to doctrinal differences, Cennick left the Wesleys that same year and joined George Whitfield. He parted with Whitfield in 1745 and joined the Moravian movement. Cennick became a deacon of the Moravian church in 1749. He traveled to Germany and Ireland, spreading the Moravian message and establishing churches (Julian, 215-216).
The discipline of his early years led to Cennick’s ability to sustain an arduous schedule, the constitution to respond to persecution, and the spirit of perseverance to continue in the face of extreme adversity. His journeys to Ireland produced large crowds as well as strong resistance from Catholic priests and parishioners. Count Nicolas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), the patron of Moravians in Germany,
called [Cennick] “Paul revived.” He tramped and rode long Irish miles in the rain and snow, and slept many a night under hedges. In the village cock-pits, where the people held their cock-fights he preached with the wet streaming from his clothes; and called in at houses on the wayside to hold a short word of prayer. Yet never for a moment was his head turned by the sight of numbers. . . . And when he was wearied . . . he sought retirement in the lonely bogs, and laid his trials before God, and strengthened his heart for the next day’s work (Hutton, 206-207).
During his lifetime, Cennick published four collections of hymns. “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” was published in the first collection as “HYMN cxxx,” Sacred Hymns, for Children of God in the Days of Their Pilgrimage, 2nd ed. (London:1741), under the title “Before Meat.” Succeeding collections were Sacred Hymns for the Use of Religious Societies (1743), A Collection of Sacred Hymns (1749), and Hymns to the Honor of Jesus Christ, Composed for Such Little Children as Desire to Be Saved (1754). The hymns Cennick did not publish during his lifetime were included in the Moravian Hymn Book (1789), which was edited by his son-in-law, Johannes Swertner (Julian, 216). John Cennick died in London in 1755. He is buried in the Moravian cemetery in Chelsea, England.
Though this text has been sung to several melodies, the tune now associated with “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” is the familiar Genevan Psalter (1551) tune Old 100th published in more than 800 hymnals in the United States, one of the most well-known melodies among Christians. It is also often used with other hymns such as “All People that on Earth Do Dwell” (1561) ascribed to William Kethe (d. 1594), and the text often used as a doxology in many congregations, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow” (1692), adapted from a stanza of an evening hymn for children by Thomas Ken (1637-1711).
The tune is often attributed to French composer Louis (Loys) Bourgeois (b. ca. 1510-1515; d. ca. 1559), John Calvin’s designated composer. Bourgeois is most famous for his collaboration with composer Clément Marot (1496-1544) and poet Théodore de Bèze (1519-1605) in the publishing of the Genevan Psalter of 1551. The Genevan Psalter was the main source of hymns for John Calvin’s Reformed Church. Old 100th, first published as part of this collection, was composed as a musical setting for a metrical version of Psalm 134. It was designated as “Old” by the editors of what became known as the “older” psalter by Thomas Sternhold (d. 1549) and John Hopkins (1520/1521-1570), entitled Whole Booke of Psalms (1562) in contrast to the newer psalter, New Version of the Psalms (1696) [Young, 197].
In addition to The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” has been published in more than 60 hymnals, according to hymnary.org, including most recently the Moravian Book of Worship (1992), Voices United (1996), the Lutheran Service Book (2006), and Lift Up Your Hearts (2013).
The version used in The United Methodist Hymnal is Cennick’s original text. The final two lines have been subject to numerous variations, which, according to United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young, “tend to weaken the hymn” (Young, 226). Variations include “This food now bless, and grant that we / may strengthened for your service be” (Voices United, 546) and “from your all-bounteous hand our food / may we receive with gratitude” (Moravian Book of Worship, 816). When people sing this hymn by memory before meals in church gatherings, they typically make mumbling substitutions such as “mercies” for “creatures” and “fellowship” for “paradise” (Young, 226). While perhaps worthy sentiments, the eschatological implications of the original are lost – “may feast in paradise with thee” – and with this, the loss of the final goal of the Christian life.
What is the Methodist connection with these words? Indeed, this text (or some adaptation thereof) is often referred to as the “Wesleyan Blessing,” and it is sung regularly in Methodist congregations before fellowship meals. The Methodist Hymnal (1935) was the first to include this stanza and one other table blessing by Cennick in Methodist collections in the United States under the title “The Wesley Graces” (McCutchen, 533). One of the interesting sources for Cennick’s text, and the best source for its connection with Methodism, is a teapot. John Wesley (1703-1791) was a lover of tea. On display at the Museum of Methodism, City Road Chapel (Wesley’s Chapel), is a teapot created by Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795), royal potter, who presented the teapot to John Wesley in 1761, an item of tea service he used for 30 years.
The exact inscription on the teapot reads as follows (including capitalizations, archaic spellings, and without punctuation):
Be present at our Table Lord
Be here and everywhere ador'd
These creatures bless & grant that we
May feast in Paradice with thee
Somehow Cennick’s original word “Thy creatures” appears as “These creatures” on the teapot. This might have been an error by Josiah Wedgewood, but it could also be an example of John Wesley’s regular work as a hymn editor. On the opposite side of the teapot is a prayer in the same meter:
We thank thee Lord for this our food
But more because of Jesus's blood
Let manna to our Souls be given
The bread of Life sent down from Heaven
The following hymn, paired with “Be present at our table Lord” in the original publication (“HYMN cxxxi”), is entitled “After Meat”:
We bless Thee, Lord, for this our Food:
But more for Jesu’s Flesh and Blood;
The Manna to our Spirit’s giv’n,
The Living Bread sent down from Heav’n;
Praise shall our grateful lips employ,
While Life and Plenty we enjoy;
Till worthy, we adore thy Name;
While banqueting with CHRIST, the LAMB.
This prayer draws upon Eucharistic images – “Jesu’ Flesh and Blood” – as well as a reference from Exodus 16:4 – “Manna to our Spirit” and John 6:51 – “Living Bread.” The final four lines round out the eschatological theme with a reference to a heavenly “banquet. . . with CHRIST, the LAMB” (Revelation 6:9). Methodist hymnologist Robert Guy McCutchan notes that one teapot contained at the Museum of Methodists, City Road Chapel, is a “teapot used by John Wesley, upon which he had engraved both the ‘Grace before Meat’ and the ‘Grace after Meat’” (McCutchan, 533).
This is a simple yet powerful hymn. In one stanza, this hymn becomes an invitation to God to be present at the time of the Eucharist. It is a reminder that we should praise God “here and everywhere.” It is a prayer for God to bless God’s creatures and to grant us passage into paradise. It is also a reminder of the promise that one day we will join God in heaven and partake of the meal with God. In the first line of the stanza, Cennick asks God to come down to our table. By the end, he takes us to paradise to dwell and partake of God’s meal with God in heaven.
Sources and Further Reading
Joseph Edmund Hutton, A Short History of the Moravian Church (London: Moravian Publication Office, 1895).
John H. Johansen, “John Cennick 1718—1755: Moravian Evangelist and Hymn Writer,” The Hymn, Vol 6:3 (July, 1955), 87-97.
John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology Setting Forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of All Ages and Nations (London: J. Murray, 1891).
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody: A Manual of the Methodist Hymnal, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1937).
The Museum of Methodism & John Wesley’s House, Accessed May 27, 2019: https://www.wesleysheritage.org.uk/the-museum-of-methodism.
J. Richard Watson. “Be Present at Our Table, Lord.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 27, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/b/be-present-at-our-table,-lord.
_____. “John Cennick.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed May 27, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-cennick.
Wesleyan-Anglican Blogspot (August 21, 2014), Accessed May 27, 2019: https://wesleyananglican.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-wesley-teapot.html.
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Raquel Godinez is a student in the Master of Theological Studies in Worship and Music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, where she studies hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, director of the Sacred Music program.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.