History of Hymns: "Breathe on Me, Breath of God"
"Breathe on Me, Breath of God"
The UM Hymnal, No. 420
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
fill mw with life anew,
that I may love what thou dost love,
and do what thou wouldst do.
The simplicity of this profound hymn belies the education and knowledge of its author, Edwin Hatch (1835-1889).
Educated at Pembroke College, Oxford, Hatch ministered in an Anglican parish in the slums of east London before accepting a position at Trinity College in Quebec where he taught classics.
After serving as Rector of Quebec High School, he returned to Oxford to become the vice-principal of St. Mary’s Hall, and took several posts including the Bampton Lecturer, Reader in Ecclesiastical History, and the Hibbert Lecturer.
Hatch was recognized as an authority on the early church as a result of his Bampton Lectures, “On the Organization of Early Christian Churches,” which were acknowledged by a leading continental scholar on this topic and translated into German.
In spite of Hatch’s scholarship, his one remaining hymn reflects both a profound simplicity and a deep knowledge of Scripture. Our hymn draws largely from John 20:21-22, following John’s account of the Resurrection, for its inspiration: “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even, so send I you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (RSV)
This passage in John correlates with Genesis 2:7 where “the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
The author invokes the Holy Spirit to come into his life and transform it. Using the first-person perspective throughout the hymn adds to the hymn’s power as the singer seeks the breath of God (Genesis 2:7) as a source for renewal.
British hymnologist J.R. Watson notes that the hymn “was given the title of ‘Spiritus Dei’ [Spirit of God], thus linking the image of ‘breath’ with that of the Holy Spirit (as in the Greek, where the same word is used for ‘spirit’ and ‘breath.’”
Mr. Watson also finds echoes of John 3:3-8, especially verses 5-7: “Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’”
Summarizing the message of the hymn, Mr. Watson suggests that the breath of God “brings new life and love, purity and obedience, surrender and inspiration, and finally eternal life, as the hymn moves through various stages of Christian experience and discipline towards a unity with God.”
The hymn was first published by Hatch in Between Doubt and Prayer (1878), a privately printed volume. Henry Allon included it in the hymnal, The Congregational Psalmist in 1886. Hatch’s widow then published this hymn posthumously in Towards Fields of Light: Sacred Poems (1890).
The tune most often used in the U.S. is TRENTHAM, named for a small village in Staffordshire, England. TRENTHAM was composed by Robert Jackson (1842-1914) in 1888 originally for a text by Henry W. Baker, “O Perfect Love of Life.”
For those who wish to appreciate the intricacies of text and tune relationships, TRENTHAM is the only Short Meter tune (188.8.131.52) in The UM Hymnal that works well with this text. Most Short Meter tunes are set with iambic texts (beginning on a weak beat) while this hymn requires a tune that begins on a strong beat because each stanza starts with an imperative verb invoking God to “Breathe on me.”