Home History of Hymns: "Break thou the Bread of Life"

History of Hymns: "Break thou the Bread of Life"

"Break thou the Bread of Life"
Mary Lathbury
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 599

Mary Lathbury

Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord, to me,
As thou didst break the loaves beside the sea;
Beyond the sacred page I seek thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for thee, O Living Word!

xMary Artemisia Lathbury (1841-1913) was a person of many talents -- professional artist, poet, and author. The daughter of a Methodist minister and sister to two Methodist ministers, she is remembered as the founder of the Look-Up Legion, a Methodist Sunday school organization, her work on behalf of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and her literary activity at the Lake Chautauqua, New York, summer assemblies.

The Chautauqua Institution, originally the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, was founded in 1874 by two Methodists as an educational experiment in out-of-school, vacation learning. The Assembly's ecumenical spirit and programming was successful and broadened almost immediately beyond courses for Sunday school teachers to include academic subjects, music, art, and physical education. Lathbury was so integral to the Assembly's life that she was called the "Poet Laureate of Chautauqua."

Chautauqua's ethos permeates "Break thou the bread of life" (1877). Inspired by Jesus' feeding of the multitude (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:39-44), this two-stanza hymn was composed on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in 1877 for the Normal Class, the most prominent educational experience at the Assembly at that time for training Sunday school teachers during the summer.

British hymnologist John Julian cited this hymn in his famous Dictionary of Hymnology (1892) with incorrect information as to its date and purpose of publication. Methodist hymnologist Fred Gealy contacted Gladys E. Gray, an amateur historian and Baptist organist and music director from Geneva, New York, concerning the origins of this hymn, and was able to correct Julian's information. Ms. Gray wrote:

"Break Thou the bread of life" was written as a "study hymn" for the Normal Classes. The Chautauqua movement started for the sole purpose of providing opportunity for Sunday School teachers to come apart and do some intensive studying in the preparation for better work in their local churches. . . . One of the mis-statements given wide publication has been that this hymn was written for the famous Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. However, the hymn was written in 1877, and Mr. Vincent did not inaugurate the Circles until 1878.

It was included in The Chautauqua Carols later that year. This hymn and Lathbury's "Day is dying in the west" (UM Hymnal, 687) are still sung regularly at the Institute's Sunday evening vesper services. More than sixty of Lathbury's hymns appear in hymnals in the United States in the twentieth century, but these two are her most used by far. "Break Thou the Bread of Life" was included in Methodist hymnals in 1905.

Though sung often as a Communion hymn, this is one of the few classic hymns on Christian Scripture. "Break thou the bread of life" focuses on the relationship between the Christ found in the "sacred page" and the individual reader of the Bible. Whereas William Walsham How's hymn on Scripture, "O Word of God Incarnate" (1866), focuses on the relationship of Scripture to the church serving as a "beacon above the darkling world," Lathbury's message is that the Christ of the Scripture brings "truth," breaks the power of "bondage," and provides "peace" to each person who shares the "bread of life."

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.