Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Sweet, Sweet Spirit"

History of Hymns: "Sweet, Sweet Spirit"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Sweet, Sweet Spirit"
Doris Mae Akers
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 334

Doris Mae Akers

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,
and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord

One of the most notable "Spirit Songs" of the twentieth century is "There's a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place" by African American gospel songwriter Doris Mae Akers (1923-1995). Born in Brookfield, Missouri, Ms. Akers connected with some of the most important gospel songwriters of her era until her death in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

"Sweet, sweet Spirit" expresses in simple, heartfelt language the work of the Holy Spirit as it works in the life of the church. It is a fitting hymn for Pentecost Sunday or any Sunday where God’s people gather to worship.

When The United Methodist Hymnal was published in 1989, "Sweet, sweet Spirit" immediately became one of the favorite new hymns, and for many congregations, it became a staple during the greeting time in worship. Because it is easily memorized, the song is often played and sung as parishioners shake hands and embrace others gathered for worship.

One of ten children, Dot Akers, as many called her, demonstrated her interest in music at the young age of six, teaching herself to play the piano by ear. By ten, she had composed her first song, "Keep the fire burning in me," and by age twelve had organized a five-piece jazz band, "Dot Akers and Her Swingsters."

In 1945 Akers moved to Los Angeles where she met some of the important names in gospel music of that era, including Sallie Martin, J. Earl Hines, and Eugene Douglas Smallwood. Soon after arriving, she joined the Sallie Martin Singers as a pianist and singer, formed the Akers Singers, and established her own publishing company, Akers Music House. In 1958 Akers formed the Sky Pilot Choir, the first interracial choir in Los Angeles. This choir was devoted to African American gospel music. She formed a relationship with Manna Music in the mid-1950s, just a few years before she composed "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" in 1962.

Many famous singers have recorded Dot Akers' songs, including George Beverly Shea, Mahalia Jackson, the Roberta Martin Singers, Aretha Franklin, and the Stamps-Baxter Quartet. Other collaborations included recordings for the Gaither label and appearances at their concerts and TV productions. In the late 1990s she was featured in Bill Gaither's gospel videos "Old Friends" and "Turn Your Radio On."

Honors include being named the Gospel Music Composer of the Year for both 1960 and 1961. She was honored by the National Organization of Black Catholics in 1987 when they named their official hymnal after her 1955 composition "Lead Me, Guide Me." Lead Me, Guide Me, Second Edition, was published by GIA Publications, Inc. in 2012. Known affectionately as "Miss Gospel Music," she was involved in every aspect of the industry from composing, arranging, publishing, choir directing, recording, as well as performing as a soloist and with ensembles. In 2001, Doris Akers was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds noted that Akers' ability to capture the attention of a congregation came through "just letting go and releasing the Spirit of God."

Lindsay Terry comments on the origins of this song in an interview with Doris Akers in the late 1980s:

"[S]he related to me that one Sunday morning in 1962, while directing the Sky Pilot Choir, she said to her singers, 'You are not ready to go in.' She didn’t believe they had prayed enough! They were accustomed to spending time with her in prayer before the service, asking God to bless their songs. She said, 'I feel that prayer is more important than great voices.' They had already prayed, but this particular morning she asked them to pray again, and they did so with renewed fervor.

"As they prayed, Doris began to wonder how she could stop this wonderful prayer meeting. She said, 'I sent word to the pastor letting him know what was happening. He was waiting in the auditorium, wanting to start the service. Finally, I was compelled to say to the choir, We have to go. I hate to leave this room and I know you hate to leave, but you know we do have to go to the service. But there is such a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place.'"

The phrase stayed with her and she wrote the song the next day. Matthew 3:16-17 inspired the specific line "Sweet heavenly Dove." This text focuses on the baptism of Jesus when "he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

For more information on this song and its writer, see Lindsay Terry, Stories Behind 50 Southern Gospel Favorites, Kregel Publications, 2005 and www.cbn.com/spirituallife/devotions/terry_sweet_spirit.asp.

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

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