History of Hymns: “Come, Let Us Eat”
Come, Let Us Eat
Words (stanzas 1-3) and Music by Billema Kwillia, trans. by Margaret D. Miller
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 625
Leader: Come, let us eat, for now the feast is spread.
All: Come, let us eat, for now the feast is spread.
Leader: Our Lord’s body let us take together.
All: Our Lord’s body let us take together.*
*Translation © Lutheran World Federation. Used by permission.
The 2005 elections in Liberia were regarded as some of the most free and fair in the country’s history. After nearly two decades of civil strife, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (b.1938), a Methodist, was elected the twenty-fourth president of Liberia, becoming the first female head of state in Africa. Though indigenous peoples have lived in Liberia since the twelfth century, the country was particularly influenced by the resettlement of freed African-American slaves during the nineteenth century, who formed an elite group that maintained political power from 1847 (the year of independence) until the mid-twentieth century.
Today, Liberia has a population of over four and a half million people, spread across sixteen recognized ethnic groups. “Come, Let Us Eat” emerges from the Loma group, an ethnic group found primarily in the northern mountains of Liberia and Guinea. Billema Kwillia was born around 1925 and learned to read her own Loma language through a church literacy program. Some sources claim she converted to Christianity; nevertheless, she later became a literacy teacher and an evangelist.
This song was likely created in the 1960s; about it S T Kimbrough comments,
In oral cultures songs are usually transmitted from one generation to another without recognition of specific authors, who are generally not known. In many parts of Africa women are a primary channel through which this transpires. In the case of the Liberian song/hymn, "A va de las mioo" (Come, one and all), in the Loma language, however, we know that the words and music are by a woman teacher and evangelist, Billema Kwillia (Kimbrough, 2017).
Margaret D. Miller (b.1927), an American missionary, first transcribed it in 1969 during a church service. Miller, the daughter of American missionaries to Liberia, studied in the United States before returning to Liberia where she developed a literacy program from 1950 to 1953. Her major work dealt with linguistics and anthropology. She worked in the small village of Wozi and edited the Loma Weekly, which appeared in Loma and English (Westermeyer, 2010, 320).
In Laudamus (1970), a publication of the Lutheran World Federation, “Come, Let Us Eat” is in triple meter, with four lines of eight syllables each, and English and German paraphrases. This version proved especially awkward for English congregations and was modified to the most widespread version: four lines of ten syllables in duple meter (Canterbury Dictionary).
The inclusion of the hymn in Western hymnals has highlighted some of the issues faced by global songs. As with many songs from oral traditions, Western notation is not always capable of fully capturing the nuances of the music, leading to poor translations that are difficult to sing. The final result often does not resemble the source material and does little to indicate the contextual performance practice. The harmonization of renowned composer and conductor Leland Sateren (1913–2007) appears in most hymnals and is an adequate solution satisfying the needs of most Western congregations without impeding the flow of the music. Nevertheless, the harmony usually results in churches leading the hymn with a keyboard instrument. Instead, “Come, Let Us Eat” should be sung in unison and unaccompanied, with the call sung by a soloist or perhaps a choir. The resulting structure is essential to the liturgical function of the song in which the leader invites the congregation to Communion. This dialogue, C. Michael Hawn notes in Halle, Halle: We Sing the World Round, is an essential component of the “community-building function of African music” (Hawn, 1999, 73). The call echoes the Great Thanksgiving in which the congregation gives their permission for the pastor to proceed with preparing the gifts. In echoing the lead, the congregation affirms in song that they will joyfully join the leader in breaking bread, acknowledging the invitation to all — this is not a solemn memorial!
By affirming the communal gathering at the Eucharist, the congregation widens the invitation to include the very source of this song and its appearance in varied forms. By working to understand its initial context and the challenges in its translation to the Western world, the congregation slowly grows in its ability to engage with the song of the other. It is necessary to become acquainted with revisions to known hymns, as in “Come, one and all,” 51 and 52 in Global Praise 3 (2004). Not only does Global Praise 3 include a new paraphrase by S T Kimbrough, Jr., but it also reproduces the hymn in its original Loma: “A va de laa mioo.” In this setting, the music bears close resemblance to its appearance in Laudamus: three phrases of eight syllables, each set in triple meter, presumably with each line echoed by the congregation. The text and Kimbrough’s English paraphrase offer a glimpse at the movement of the people during the Eucharist, with this invitation found in the first stanza:
Come, one and all, to the table.
Christ invites all who repent and seek him.*
* Translation © 2004 by S T Kimbrough, Jr. Used by permission.
For Further Reading
“Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Johnson_Sirleaf
“’Vote for Woman’: How Africa Got Its First Female President.” https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/03/vote-for-woman-how-africa-got-its-first-female-president/518874/
Westermeyer, Paul. Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010.
C. Michael Hawn. "Billema Kwillia." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed September 27, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/b/billema-kwillia.
Hawn, C. Michael. Halle, Halle: We Sing the World Round. Garland, Texas: Choristers Guild, 1999.
Kimbrough, Jr. S T, ed., Global Praise 3. New York:, GBGMusik, 2004.
Kimbrough, Jr. S T. “Re: Permission to Reprint Translation.” Received by Jackson Henry, 27 Sept. 2017.
Joshua Zentner-Barrett received a master of sacred music degree from Perkins School of Theology, SMU, in May 2017, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.