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History of Hymns: "Author of Life Divine"

By Jackson Henry

Communion elements

“Author of Life Divine”
by John Wesley
Worship & Song, No. 3166

Author of life divine,
Who hast a table spread,
Furnished with mystic wine
And everlasting bread,
Preserve the life thyself hast given,
And feed, and train us up for heaven.

Our needy souls sustain
With fresh supplies of love,
Till all thy life we gain,
And all thy fullness prove,
And strengthened by thy perfect grace,
Behold without a veil thy face.

The church needs hymns that delve into the mystery of God’s presence, especially in the sacraments. Wesley’s hymn confronts this subject deliberately, and in as concise a manner as was possible from Wesley, he leaves the singer with a direct approach to the elements of Holy Communion while leaving enough space to respect their inherent mystery.

Having been included in many Anglican, Congregationalist, United Reformed Church, and United Methodist collections, “Author of Life Divine” was originally printed in the 1745 collection (Section II, Hymn XL), Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. The six sections of this work are arranged as follows:

I. As it is a Memorial of the Sufferings and Death of Christ
II. As it is a Sign and a Means of Grace
III. The Sacrament a Pledge of Heaven
IV. The Holy Eucharist as it implies a Sacrifice
V. Concerning the Sacrifice of our Persons
After the Sacrament (not given a number)

The structure of this work is arranged according to John Wesley’s inclusion of the text, On the Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice, by Daniel Brevint (1672), in the preface. The primary influence for this hymn appears to be from the following section in the preface:

“And as Bread and Wine do not produce, but keep up our Natural life, so doth our Lord Jesus, by a continual Supply of Strength and Grace, represented by Bread and Wine, sustain that Spiritual Life which he hath procured us by his Cross.” (Preface, Section III, No. 3)

Throughout the narrative arc of this collection, the Wesleys present a systematic approach to understanding the sacrament by first addressing Christ’s role in the meal and progressing toward our humble role of personal sacrifice.

Sometimes the most powerful statements are the most succinct, and Wesley has created a feast for the senses, complete with sights and smells worthy of a banquet. The hymn is presented as a conversation of sorts, with the first stanza directed toward God—the host and provider of the meal—and the focus of the second upon humankind—the needy and reliant members of the relationship. In addition to influence from Brevint, Wesley was obviously affected by the book of Exodus in his writing. Whereas the first stanza focuses upon the ritual meal itself (from Christ’s last supper), the second stanza aims more toward the mystery of the meal in connection with mysterious images from the life of Moses. The role of “fresh” food recalls the story of the Israelites from Exodus 16, when God provided daily manna for the people as a means of sustenance as they journeyed toward the promised land. In Exodus 34: 29-35 (Transfiguration Sunday, Year C), Moses’s face shone with the glory of God such that he would cover his face with a veil until he spoke directly with God. Wesley used this image to create a scene of wonder in which “strengthened by thy perfect grace,” we would eventually “behold without a veil” the face of God. The interesting paradox Wesley creates, however, is in the juxtaposition of the elements from Jesus’ table with the food from Exodus. Notice the paradoxical use of his images:

Jesus' table
Everlasting Bread
"Preserve" (Stanza 1)

Wilderness meal from Exodus
Manna, which spoiled the next day
"Let no one leave any of it over until morning." (Exodus 16:19)

It is clear that Wesley intends the guests at the meal to know that the bread and wine come in an unending supply to sustain the “Spiritual Life,” as referred to in the preface. Time will not spoil these gifts of grace and life.

When I composed the tune for this text, it was clear there was no need for complexity. Adding too many notes can clutter a message of mystery that is best revealed in simplicity. The question was: How do you create a tune that is motivic, singable, and memorable on a short, two-stanza hymn? Admittedly, for the sake of the tune, I wish Wesley had written more stanzas. Had he done so, however, including more stanzas might have ventured into the over-complexity issues this text defies. The tempo needs to pulse, played with sparse pedal and if possible and/or available, one high instrument (flute, oboe, etc.) and a low instrument (cello). In the Singer’s Edition of Worship & Song, the tune is written for a treble vocal duet. No matter if it is accompanied by piano, organ, guitar, or any other instruments, allow the stark and barren accompaniment to “shine” with the mysterious glory of God.

Rev. Jackson Henry serves as Director of Music Ministries at First UMC, Franklin, Tennessee.

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