Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Spirit of the Living God'

History of Hymns: 'Spirit of the Living God'

By C. Michael Hawn

"Spirit of the Living God"
Daniel Iverson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 393

Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.

This is one of the most long-lasting and widely used choruses in Christian worship. Every aspect of the song embodies a simple sincerity.

The melody encompasses only five notes, with every pitch in its place. The harmonies can be played by a very modestly skilled pianist, and three of the four lines repeat the same nine words. Yet for many, the straightforward petitions of this song draw the singer into an attitude of prayer.

Despite its simplicity and sincerity, numerous versions concerning the song’s origins developed over the years. Carl P. Daw Jr. offers this account:

When he wrote this text in 1926, the author was the pastor of Howard Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tarboro, North Carolina. He apparently began working on it in his study at the church, because there is now a plaque in that room commemorating the text’s origins. The stimulus for the central petitions seems to have been his encounter with Jeremiah 18:1–6, which describes the prophet’s visit to the potter’s house. From that passage emerged “Melt me; mold me; fill me; use me” (which also sound as if they might have been the organizing points of a sermon). (Daw, 2016, p. 291)

Iverson then traveled to Orlando, Florida, in February of that year where evangelist George T. Stephens was conducting a revival. Another evangelist on the team, Dr. Barron, a physician from Columbia, South Carolina, impressed Iverson with his sermon on the Holy Spirit. Taking the kernel from earlier, the composer when went to First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, and found a piano. Miss Birdie Loes, the pianist for Stephens’ evangelistic team, notated the music on manuscript paper. The song leader for the team, E. Powell Lee, introduced it that evening and sang it throughout the evangelistic campaign. (Reynolds, 1976, p. 199)

Daniel Iverson (1890-1977) was a native of Brunswick, Georgia. Ga. He received his education at the University of Georgia in Athens, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Columbia Theological Seminary (Columbia, South Carolina, now in Decatur, Georgia), and the University of South Carolina. As a Presbyterian minister, Iverson served churches in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. In 1927 he organized the Shenandoah Presbyterian Church in Miami, Florida, Fla., remaining with this congregation until his retirement in 1951.

While the inspiration for the hymn is not known for certain, it is likely that Iverson knew a hymn by Adelaide Pollard (1862-1934), “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” based on Jeremiah 18:6: “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (KJV).

The first stanza of Pollard’s hymn uses similar language (“Mold me and make me”). The final stanza also contains a petition to the Spirit (“Fill with thy Spirit”). Pollard’s hymn was written about 25 years before Iverson’s 1926 composition. Both use a similar musical idiom.

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The UM Hymnal, notes that the authorship of “Spirit of the Living God” was lost for a time because the song could so easily be taught without music or even printed words. It first appeared in Revival Songs (1929) in a slightly revised version that was published without the author’s permission, according to Dr. Young. (Young, 1993, p. 605)

Southern Baptist gospel song composer B.B. McKinney made slight alterations and published it again in his Songs of Victory (1937). The altered version was solidified when it was published in the Baptist Hymnal (1956) without the composer’s name. E. Powell Lee, the song leader for the Stephens evangelistic team, brought Iverson’s name to light and his name was restored to the song in later printings of the Baptist Hymnal in the 1960s.

The Worshiping Church (1990), edited by Donald P. Hustad, offers a slight modification of the four central petitions: “Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me.” Carlton Young suggests that this may have been the original sequence (Young, 1993, p. 605). This hymnal also contains a complementary second stanza beginning, “Spirit of the living God, move among us all,” by Anglican priest and hymn writer Michael Baughen (b. 1930).

In a 2007 blog post, retired Presbyterian pastor John McCrea described his childhood in Iverson’s congregation: “I was there then, age 4, with my family. We lived a block from the church’s first building, an old rustic dance hall. Daniel’s youngest son, Bill Iverson, recently called together many old-timers to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the church . . . now occupied by a Hispanic congregation dedicated to carrying on the same message and mission.”

Undoubtedly, the Spanish-language translation of Iverson’s hymn lives on in this congregation:

Santo Espiritu de Dios, ven, sobre mí.
Santo Espiritu de Dios, ven sobre mí.
Tómane, cámbiame, lléname, úsame.
Santo Espiritu de Dios, ven sobre mí.


Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

William J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976).

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.

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