History of Hymns: 'Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness”
by James K. Manley
The Faith We Sing, 2120
Spirit, Spirit of gentleness,
blow through the wilderness calling and free;
Spirit, Spirit of restlessness,
stir me from placidness,
Wind, Wind on the sea.
© 1978 James K. Manley. All rights reserved.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law (Gal 5:22–23, NIV).
James (Jim) Keith Manley was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1940. He received his education from Whittier College (BA 1962), Pacific School of Religion (MDiv 1966), and Claremont School of Theology (DMin 1976). Ordained into the ministry of the United Church of Christ in 1966, Manley served as pastor of the Niles United Church of Christ in Fremont, California (1966–68), and taught at the Mid-Pacific Institute Prep School (1968–78). Manley returned to the pastorate at the United Church of Christ Church in San Marino (1978–88) and the Foothills Congregational Church (1988–99) in Los Altos. He has toured and shared his music during his retirement in churches in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Micronesia. Recent songs have focused on mitigating the effects of climate change and living creatively in a global community. These are available on his CD Pilgrim on a Brave New Planet (Claremont, 2011).
Manley wrote “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness” in 1975 after completing the first draft of his DMin thesis for Claremont School of Theology. The hymn, sometimes called “Spirit Song,” was first released on a cassette recording titled Spirit and a book (1980). It then appeared in a Lutheran contemporary songbook Songs for a New Creation (1982) and, later, in After Eden (1990) with an arrangement by California composer Jim Strathdee (b. 1941). The composer describes the song’s origins:
After a real but perplexing “born again” experience, I determined to understand it more fully, so on a sabbatical leave, I studied Process Theology with John B. Cobb [b. 1925] at the School of Theology in Claremont, California, who inspired the writing of this song. Returning to Honolulu, I sang the first three verses at Waiokeola Congregational Church UCC. A member commented that the hymn needed a fourth stanza to contemporize it. I disagreed, but after a sleepless night wrote the final verse. This is by far my most widely sung, reprinted and recorded hymn. (Manley, “Notes and Suggestions,” n.p.)
The composer dedicated the song to John Cobb and Gene Kuehl, then the Director of Pilgrim Pines Camp, where he first sang it on the mainland of the United States.
Numerous passages of Scripture support the poetic allusions in this hymn. As is the case with many hymns on the Holy Spirit, the refrain of the hymn assumes the prayer posture of a petition—“blow through the wilderness” and “stir me from placidness.” The composer recognizes two contrasting qualities of the Holy Spirit—“gentleness” and “restlessness.” The final phrase, “wind on the sea,” reminds us of Genesis 2b: “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (NIV).
Each stanza unfolds a particular manifestation of the Spirit. Stanza 1, "You moved on the waters," responds to the Genesis passage introduced in the refrain and refers to other days of creation—the third day (“coaxed up the mountains”)—and the naming of the living things (“over the eons you called to each thing”). The stanza ends with two petitions: “Awake from your slumbers” (Eph 5:14) and “rise on your wings” (Isa 40:31).
In stanza 2, the Spirit takes us to the “desert” (Matt 4), shared the law even when the children of Israel had turned to idols (Ex 32 1–22:4), and revealed God’s judgment through the prophets. The Faith We Sing maintains the original wording in the third line of this stanza: “you goaded your people with a law and a land.” The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) committee requested that this phrase be changed to “you gifted your people.” The author requested that the original be restored for later publications (Daw, 2016, p. 294).
Stanza 3 accompanies Christ throughout his life: the Incarnation (“sang in a stable”—Luke 2), weeping over Jerusalem (“cried from a hill”—Luke 19:41–44), and ministry (“you blew through your people”). The final stanza reminds us that Spirit is still speaking today by “break[ing] ancient schemes.” Drawing up images in the familiar Lucan passage (4:18–19), the Spirit frees those in the “bondage of sorrow.” It enables “captives [to] dream dreams.” Echoing Acts 2:17, the composer paraphrases the prophecy saying, “our women see visions, / our men clear their eyes.”
This hymn affirms the Spirit's presence as a full partner in the Trinity—not a later adjunctive agent. Manley provides a lyrical clarification throughout the biblical witness of faith. He challenges us in the final lines of the fourth stanza to follow the leading of the Spirit: “With bold new decisions / your people arise.” Paul Westermeyer points out that the Holy Spirit is an active partner who “blows, stirs, calls, frees, moves, coaxes, creates, awakens, sweeps, stings, goads, speaks, sings, cries, whispers, and breaks all forms of bondage” (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 209).
Hymnwriter Brian Wren (b. 1936) affirms the song: “[W]hat a superb text it is. ‘Coaxed up the mountains from the valleys of sleep’, ‘with a law and a land’, ‘stung with the sand’, ‘from the bondage of sorrow the captives dream dreams’ and many more, are stunning lines of simplicity and depth. And the hymn . . . needed to be written . . . [E]ach time [I use it] I’ve been gripped by the power of its language and moved by it” (Wren, http://www.manleymusic.com/jimstory.htm).
This hymn is in a gentle folk style typical to the post-Vatican II (1962–65) era when instrumental accompaniments included more than organ and piano. The key of D-major is very easy to adapt to the guitar, and Manley employs only simple chords in this key. Though the poetic meter of the stanzas is irregular, singers learn them quickly. Singers memorize the refrain after only a single hearing.
Manley’s “Spirit of Gentleness” has similarities with two other folk-style hymns. For a comparison, see “She Comes Sailing on the Wind” (“She Flies On”) (1985) by Canadian Anglican Bishop Gordon Light (b. 1944) in The Faith We Sing, 2122, and “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” (1985) by Lutheran composer John Ylvisaker (1937–2017) in The Faith We Sing, 2051. In addition to a similar folk style, these hymns all take a ballad approach to the Spirit's work in Christ’s ministry and throughout our lives.
James Manley has composed other hymns that appear in Australian and Canadian hymnals. These include “On the Eighth Day of Creation, Well, the Lord Looked Around” (“Take, take off your shoes”) (published in 1999) and “Come in, Come in and Sit Down” (1984). After years of parish ministry and touring, Jim and his wife Patricia live at Pilgrim Place, an active retirement community in Claremont, California, and he leads Pilgrim Pickers, a fourteen-member folk band.
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
James Manley, “Jim’s Story,” Manley Music, http://www.manleymusic.com/jimstory.htm.
James Manley, “Notes and Suggestions for Use,” Manley Music, http://www.manleymusic.com/spirnote.htm (accessed June 22, 2021).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
Verses marked NIV are from the 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, 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.