History of Hymns: 'O Breath of Life, Come Sweeping Through Us'
By C. Michael Hawn
“O Breath of Life, Come Sweeping Through Us”
by Bessie Porter Head
The United Methodist Hymnal, 543
Worship and Song, 3146
O Breath of life, come sweeping through us,
Revive thy church with life and power;
O Breath of life, come, cleanse, renew us,
And fit thy church to meet this hour.
Elizabeth (Bessie) Ann Porter Head (1849/1850–1936) was the youngest daughter of Tobias Porter, the manager of a flour mill in Belfast. Her life was a mystery until she was appointed secretary of the YWCA in Swansea on the southern coast of Wales. Between 1897 and 1907, Bessie Porter helped found several YWCA branches for the South Africa General Mission (now the Africa Evangelical Fellowship) in Port Elizabeth (now known by its Xhosa name, Gqeberha), Cape Town, and Johannesburg, South Africa. She toured North America with the chairman of the Mission in 1906–1907, Albert Alfred Head (1844–1928), a widower who was a wealthy insurance underwriter. Bessie canceled her return to South Africa in 1907 and married Albert Head.
The South Africa General Mission was closely associated with the Keswick Convention, an evangelical offshoot of the Holiness movement, founded in 1875 by Anglican Canon T.D. Harford-Battersby, Vicar of St. John’s, Keswick, and Robert Wilson, a Cumberland Quaker. The annual meetings have hosted numerous notable speakers and were known for fervent prayer and hymn singing. The Convention has produced its own hymnals, most recently Keswick Convention Praise (1983), an edition of Mission England Praise with a specially printed cover. In this context, Bessie Porter Head wrote “O Breath of Life,” which first appeared in Head’s prose and poem collection, Heavenly Places, and other Messages (1920). From there, its five stanzas have been widely sung at the convocations of the Keswick Convention, and it was included in the Keswick Hymn-Book (1936) and its successor, Keswick Praise (1975).
The first stanza invokes the Holy Spirit— “Breath of life”—to “sweep. . . through us,” a reference to Genesis 2:7. This is followed by a series of imperative verbs addressed to the Spirit— “revive,” “cleanse,” “renew,” and “fit thy church.” Stanza 2 invokes the “Wind of God”—perhaps the Ruah that moved over the waters at the time of creation (Gen 1:2)—to “bend” and “break” us until “humbly we confess our need.” When we have confessed, the Spirit can tenderly “remake,” “revive,” and “restore” us.
In stanza 3, the author invokes the “Breath of love” to “breathe within us.” In this stanza, the hymn takes a Christological turn, invoking the “love of Christ” to “win us” and “revive thy church.” The focus on Christ continues in stanza 4—“O Heart of Christ”—whose broken heart is the source of “our strength and rest.” Through “our broken, contrite hearts,” the “church [is] blest.” Regretfully, this stanza is often omitted in hymnals.
The final stanza asks the Lord to “revive us.” The author poses a rhetorical question that echoes John 4:35: “Is zeal abating, / While harvest fields are vast and white?” In the spirit of The Great Commission (Matt 28:19–20), the author concludes the hymn: “Revive us, Lord, the world is waiting, / Equip thy church to spread the light.” The United Methodist Hymnal includes only stanzas 1, 2, and 3, rendering the hymn a “prayer to the Holy Spirit to renew the church” (Young, 1993, p. 500).
“O Breath of life” continues to appear in twenty-first-century hymnals. Of the more than forty hymnals that include this hymn, most pair it with the tune SPIRITUS VITAE (1920) by English composer Mary Jane Hammond (1878–1964), the original tune composed for this text. The United Methodist Hymnal uses BISHOP POWELL (1987) by organist, composer, and music professor David Ashley White (b. 1944), named for retired Protestant Episcopal Church Bishop Chilton Powell. The United Methodist Hymnal editor, Carlton R. Young (b. 1926), composed ADIEU (2008) for the United Methodist supplement Worship and Song (2011).
J. Richard Watson, “Bessie Porter Head,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/b/bessie-porter-head (accessed February 28, 2023).
_____, “Keswick Convention,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/k/keswick-convention (accessed February 28, 2023).
_____, “O Breath of Life, Come Sweeping Through Us,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/o/o-breath-of-life,-come-sweeping-through-us (accessed February 28, 2023).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
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.