History of Hymns: “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart"
George Croly
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 500

George Croly

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart,
wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;
stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
and make me love thee as I ought to love.


The words of this sung prayer are among the most passionate in the history of hymnody. From the first line, the poet entreats the Holy Spirit to “descend upon [his] heart.” The language of petition continues: “wean [my heart] from earth;” “move” through the very pulsing of my heart; “stoop to my weakness” and “make me love thee as I ought to love.” 

The poet continues his petition to the Spirit in the second stanza. He does not wish for any ecstatic experience or dramatic encounter, simply that the Spirit would “take the dimness of [his] soul away.” 

The image of the cross is a source of solace in stanza three. Seeking God through the cross is the pathway to finding God’s presence. In the fourth stanza, the poet wants “to feel that [God] is always nigh.” The poet’s faith is one of total surrender that allows him to bear “the struggles of the soul” and to stifle the “rising doubt” and “rebel sigh.” The stanza concludes with a plea for “patience” when experiencing “unanswered prayer.” 

The final stanza looks heavenward as the poet seeks to love God “as thine angels love.” The Pentecost image of “the heaven-descended Dove” is evoked. The final line of the hymn brings it to a climax when the poet imagines a perfect union with God: “my heart the altar, and thy love the flame.” 

This masterpiece of Christian devotional poetry is the work of George Croly (1780-1860), an Anglican minister born in Dublin, Ireland, but whose ministry took place in London. Having served a small parish in Ireland, he moved to London to pursue a literary career where he wrote in several mediums including poetry, novels, history and biography. 

Croly accepted the challenge to reopen in 1835 a church in one of the worst slum areas of London, one that had been closed for over a century. He was known among his peers as thoroughly conservative in theology with no tolerance for liberal views. Through personal charisma and dynamic preaching, he attracted large crowds to St. Stephen’s Church. 

Croly prepared a new hymnal in 1854 for his congregation and published it as Psalms and Hymns for Public Worship. Our hymn first appeared in that hymnal under the title “Holiness Desired.” It is the only hymn by Croly to have survived. 

Frederick Atkinson (1841-1897) wrote the Victorian tune MORECAMBE, named after a town in England’s Midland district. The composer’s intent was to provide a musical setting for Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” (The UM Hymnal, No. 700). Indeed the rhythm is identical between EVENTIDE, the tune associated with “Abide with me,” and MORECAMBE. 

There is, however, no doubt that MORECAMBE is well suited for “Spirit of God.” In the first stanza, a descending melody accompanies the words, “descend upon my heart.” 

Likewise an ascending melody in the third line allows the words “mighty as thou art” to blossom. This rising figure works amazingly well with the text of each stanza. The final three notes of the melody, all on the same pitch, do not end on the customary tonic, home tone or first degree of the scale, but on the third degree. 

By concluding the melody on the third degree of the scale, there is a floating quality to the ending of each stanza, reminiscent of the hovering of the descending Dove, one of the metaphors of the Spirit.
 

© 1987 Oxford University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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