Article

History of Hymns: “Spirit of the Living God”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Spirit of the Living God"
Daniel Iverson
The UM Hymnal, No. 393

Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God,
Fall afresh on me.


This is one of the most long-lasting and widely used choruses in Christian worship. Every aspect of the song embodies a simple sincerity.

The melody encompasses only five notes, with every pitch in its place. The harmonies can be played by a very modestly skilled pianist, and three of the four lines repeat the same nine words. Yet for many, the straightforward petitions of this song draw the singer into an attitude of prayer.

The late hymnologist William J. Reynolds provided background on the song’s creation:

“During January and February of 1926, the George T. Stephans Evangelistic Party conducted a citywide revival in the tabernacle in Orlando, Fla. Daniel Iverson, a Presbyterian minister from Lumberton, N.C., spent several days in Orlando visiting with the Stephans team. The day he arrived, he was greatly impressed by a message on the Holy Spirit given by Dr. Barron, a physician from Columbia, S.C.

“Later that day Iverson went to the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, sat down at the piano, and wrote this song. Miss Birdie Loes, the pianist for the Stephans team, wrote it out on manuscript paper. E. Powell Lee, the team song leader, was immediately impressed and taught it to the people that evening in the tabernacle, and used it throughout the campaign.”

Daniel Iverson (1890-1977) was a native of Brunswick, Ga. He received his education at the University of Georgia in Athens, the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., and the University of South Carolina. As a Presbyterian minister, Iverson served churches in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. In 1927 he organized the Shenandoah Presbyterian Church in Miami, Fla., remaining with this congregation until his retirement in 1951.

While the inspiration for the hymn is not known for certain, it is likely that Iverson knew a hymn by Adelaide Pollard (1862-1934), “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” based on Jeremiah 18:6: “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (KJV).

The first stanza of Pollard’s hymn uses similar language (“Mold me and make me”). The final stanza also contains a petition to the Spirit (“Fill with thy Spirit”). Pollard’s hymn was written about 25 years before Iverson’s 1926 composition. Both use a similar musical idiom.

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that the authorship of “Spirit of the Living God” was lost for a time because the song could so easily be taught without music or even printed words. It first appeared in Revival Songs (1929) in a slightly revised version that was published without the author’s permission, according to Dr. Young.

Southern Baptist gospel song composer B.B. McKinney made slight alterations and published it again in his Songs of Victory (1937). The altered version was solidified when it was published in the Baptist Hymnal (1956) without the composer’s name. E. Powell Lee, the song leader for the Stephans evangelistic team, brought Iverson’s name to light and his name was restored to the song in later printings of the Baptist Hymnal in the 1960s.

In a 2007 blog post, retired Presbyterian pastor John McCrea described his childhood in Iverson’s congregation: “I was there then, age 4, with my family. We lived a block from the church’s first building, an old rustic dance hall.

“Daniel’s youngest son, Bill Iverson, recently called together many old-timers to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the church . . . now occupied by a Hispanic congregation dedicated to carrying on the same message and mission.”

Undoubtedly, the Spanish-language translation of Iverson’s hymn lives on in this congregation.
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns