Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Bread of the World'

History of Hymns: 'Bread of the World'

By C. Michael Hawn

“Bread of the World”
by Reginald Heber
The United Methodist Hymnal, 624

Bread of the world in mercy broken!
Wine of the soul in mercy shed!
By whom the words of life were spoken,
And in whose death our sins are dead!

Reginald Heber (1783-1826), a distinguished award-winning poet, Fellow at All Souls College, and lecturer and scholar, agreed to be consecrated as Bishop of Calcutta (now known as Kolkata), West Bengal, India in June 1823. Although the British East India Company was established early in the seventeenth century, it was not until 1813 that the company allowed missionaries into India. Heber’s arrival in October 1823 was the beginning of a period of activity that included extensive travel throughout India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and the founding of Bishop’s College in Calcutta, leading to the ordination of the first Anglican Indian to take orders to the priesthood. Heber’s sudden death as a result of a seizure while bathing in 1826 cut short an effective ministry, bestowing on him the attribution of a heroic missionary martyred in the cause of Christian service.

Reginald heber
Reginald Heber

Heber’s hymns were composed while he was vicar of Hodnet, Shropshire (1807-1823). Some were published between 1811 and 1816 in the religious periodicals Evangelical Magazine and the Christian Observer. He introduced hymn singing at Hodnet, a novelty in the Church of England in the early nineteenth century, which was said to have increased attendance (Benson, 1915, p. 437). Indeed, the Church of England had taken notice of the success of hymn singing among the Methodists and other non-conformists, and some in the Anglican Church sought to develop a practice that fit its liturgy (Dibble, 2019, p. 28).

Before departing for India, he made plans with fellow Anglican churchman, hymn writer, and Oxford Professor of Poetry Henry Hart Milman (1791-1868) to publish a volume of hymns arranged around the Christian year. Hymns written and adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year was published posthumously by his wife in 1827. Heber’s 57 hymns made up more than half of the volume. As British hymnologist J. Richard Watson notes, “He was one of the first people to conceive of hymns as integral to the liturgy and to Sunday worship with the Church of England, but he failed to convince church authorities to grant official permission for hymn-singing at regular Sunday services within his lifetime” (Watson, “Reginald Heber,” n.p.). In contrast to hymn singing, the singing of metrical psalms was the norm in Anglican worship at this time. Of this collection, early twentieth-century Presbyterian hymnologist Louis F Benson noted: “His book offers a new standard for hymnody: that of a pure but carefully restrained devotion accommodated to the church year, and expressed in flowing rhythms with poetic grace and ornament” (Benson, 1915, p. 440).

The organization of the collection provides a detailed outline of the Anglican Church Year. As the Preface states:

The Hymns in this volume were arranged by Bishop Heber with a hope that they might be deemed worthy of general adoption into our churches, and it was his intention to publish them soon after his arrival in India; but the arduous duties of his situation left little time, during the short life there allotted to him, for any employment not immediately connected with his diocese (Heber, 1827, n.p.).

Heber’s most famous hymn, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty,” appears as the first hymn under “Trinity Sunday” (p. 84). “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,” another well-known hymn is listed under “Epiphany” (pp. 25-26). Heber’s interest in missionary activity was evident in his 1819 hymn “From Greenland’s mountains, / From India’s coral strand,” a hymn that seemed prescient in light of his appointment four years later as Bishop of Calcutta. Though not a normal part of the church year, this hymn was under the section “Before a Collection for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.” Though the hymn articulates what is now viewed as a condescending colonial view of foreign missions as a part of the expansion of the British Empire, it demonstrates Heber’s passion for missions.

The brief two-stanza hymn “Bread of the world, in mercy broken” appears in the collection in the section “Before the Sacrament” (p. 143). According to J. Richard Watson, the hymn refers “with a delicate simplicity” to John 6:51, 54-58 (Watson, “Bread of the world”, n.p.):

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world. . . . Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as you fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (KJV)

The second stanza indicates that Holy Communion is food for the soul and should be approached with humility and contrition:

Look on the heart by sorrow broken,
Look on the tears by sinners shed,
And be Thy feast to us the token
That by Thy grace our souls are fed!

The hymn would have followed the classic Collect for Purity from the Book of Common Prayer earlier in the liturgy:

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secretes are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.

In addition, confession and absolution would precede the reception of the Eucharist. Thus, the tone of the hymn fits well into the spirit and theology of the liturgy. This is an example of how Heber conceived the use of hymns in liturgy – not just at the beginning or end – but at points integral to the liturgy, “or at the point of the anthem as outlined by the Book of Common Prayer” (Dibble, 2019, p. 29).

In the original publication (but not in current hymnals), one notes each sentence of this brief two-stanza hymn employs an exclamation mark at the end – four times en toto. These exclamation marks in the original text probably indicate the emotional passion undergirding Heber’s text rather than a modern declaration. Heber and Moravian contemporary James Montgomery (1771-1854) are credited by scholars with “combining . . . hymns and lyric poetry as categories” (Phillips, 2018, p. 22). The quality of their hymn texts as poetry was recognized both for their contribution to congregational song and to Romanic era poetry.

The tune EUCHARISTIC HYMN (1868) by John Sebastian Bach Hodges (1830-1895), an Episcopal priest on the east coast of the United States, sets the text in two stanzas. This is the most commonly used tune for this text. RENDEZ A DIEU, a tune attributed to John Calvin’s cantor Louis Bourgeois (c. 1510-1561), is often used in hymnals. This tune sets the entire eight lines as a single stanza.


Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1915).

Jeremy Dibble, “Oxford’s Tractarian Movement,” Hymns and Hymnody Historical and Theological Introductions: Volume 3: From the English West to the Global South, Mark A. Lamport, Benjamin K. Forrest, and Vernon M. Whaley, eds. (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019), 23-42.

Reginald Heber, Hymns, Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year (London: John Murray, 1827), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b4713678&view=1up&seq=17

Christopher A. Phillips, Hymnal: A Reading History (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2018).

J. Richard Watson, “Bread of the World in Mercy Broken,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 20, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/b/bread-of-the-world-in-mercy-broken.

_____, “Reginald Heber,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 20, 2019,http://www.hymnology.co.uk/r/reginald-heber.

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., 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.

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