History of Hymns: 'Become to Us the Living Bread'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Become to Us the Living Bread”
by Miriam Drury
The United Methodist Hymnal, 630
Become to us the living bread
by which the Christian life is fed,
renewed, and greatly comforted:
*© 1972. The Westminster Press. Reproduced by permission. All rights reserved.
California native Miriam (née Leyrer) Drury (1900-1985), born in Santa Ana and died in Pasadena, served as an organist in her Congregational church in her youth and attended the University of California. After marrying Clifford M. Drury in 1922, a Presbyterian minister and professor of church history at San Francisco Theological Seminary (San Anselmo, California), she continued her musical interests and education in the locations where his positions took them, including Edinburgh, Scotland; Shanghai, China; and Moscow, Idaho (McKim, 1993, p. 341; Young, 1993, pp. 742-743). They had three children (Marginalia, 1956, p. 92), which may account for her interest in composing children’s hymns, including “How many people does it take,” a hymn that appeared in a popular mid-twentieth-century children’s hymnal, Hymns for Primary Worship (Philadelphia, 1946) [Fyock, 1996, p. 504].
“Become to Us the Living Bread” was one of several hymns that won awards in contests sponsored by The Hymn Society in America (now The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) in 1970. It first appeared in The Worshipbook—Services and Hymns (Philadelphia, 1972), a joint Presbyterian hymnal for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States.
Methodist hymnal companion editor H. Myron Braun describes the hymn as follows:
With artistic simplicity, brevity, and clarity, several meanings of the Lord’s supper are lifted up, especially that of the sustaining and supporting presence of Christ that enables us to take up our tasks as the covenant people. Though written by a Presbyterian, this text surely would have gladdened the heart of John Wesley, with his doctrine of the mystical, or spiritual, yet personal presence of Christ in the sacrament (Braun, 1982, p. 9).
The three stanzas are based on John 6:35-58, a passage that begins, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35, NIV). The concept of “living bread” is taken from verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (NIV).
Stanza 1 draws upon verses 35 and 51, cited above, as well as verse 57 (NIV): “Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” Stanza 2 focuses on the “never-failing wine”, which is a “spring of joy” and symbol of our “covenant” with Christ. This covenant is stated in several verses in this passage:
- John 6:40, NIV: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
- John 6:51, NIV: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
- John 6:55-56, NIV: “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
Stanza 3 of the hymn encompasses the unity of Christians who gather “all with one accord” as they “unite around the sacred board.” The theme of Christian unity was especially strong in the years following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and its use in this hymn makes it particularly appropriate for World Communion Sunday. The “alleluia” refrain that concludes each stanza makes this an excellent choice for services of Holy Communion that take place during Eastertide.
Drury revives the image of “sacred board,” a somewhat antiquated reference for the Communion Table found in earlier hymns. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) began a Communion hymn with the line “Sitting around Our Father’s Board,” subtitled “Grace and Glory by the Death of Christ,” appearing in Book III, “Prepared for the Holy Ordinance of the Lord’s Supper” in Hymns and Spiritual Songs (London, 1707). American uses of the term are found in the hymns “Thou Has Spread the Sacred Board,” an anonymous hymn published in Samuel Willard’s Regular Hymns (Greenfield, Massachusetts, 1824) and “We Gather to the Sacred Board” by Unitarian minister Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch (1809-1870), published in Alfred Putnam’s Singers and Songs of the Liberal Faith (Boston, 1875).
Drury composed a number of hymns (words and music), anthems, and poems for children and adults. In addition to this hymn, others that won awards in Hymn Society contests include the following:
- “Bless Thou Thy Chosen Sons,” Ten New Hymns for Ministry (1966)
- “Give Us a Dream to Share,” Ten New Hymns for the 70’s (1970)
- “O Thou Whose Favor Hallows All Occasions” (1970), a search for contemporary poetic expressions of the concerns of Christian people
- “Within the Church’s Hallowed Walls,” Nine New Hymns on the Mission of the Church (1969)
The tune GELOBT SEI GOTT (1609) by German composer Melchior Vulpius (1570-1651) provides a perfect wedding of a historical text with a more recent text.
Sources and Further Reading:
H. Myron Braun, Companion to the Book of Hymns Supplement (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1982).
Joan A. Fyock, Hymnal Companion (Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press, 1996).
“Marginalia,” The California Historical Society Quarterly 35:1 (March 1956).
LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Verses marked NIV are from New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.