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History of Hymns: "The Bread of Life for All Is Broken"

By Huang Ching-Yu

"The Bread of Life for All Is Broken"
by Timothy Tingfang Lew;
trans. Walter Reginald Oxenham Taylor. The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 633

The bread of life for all is broken!
Christ drank the cup on Golgotha.
God’s grace we trust, and spread with reverence
this holy feast, and thus remember.

If you were to ask Chinese Christians, “Who is Dr. Timothy Tingfang Lew?”, they would rarely know about him; but if you say he is the translator of the well-known hymn “Silent Night, Holy Night,” most Chinese speakers would recognize his work.

Timothy Tingfang Lew (1891-1947) or Liu Tingfang, born in Wenchau, Chekiang, China, was a third generation Christian. He was well known as an educator, serving at Beijing Normal University, Yenching University, and Peking University, as well as an author, editor and an ecumenist. His many ecumenical activities included serving on the general committee of the World Student Christian Federation beginning in 1920, helping to organize the National Christian Council of China in 1922, and serving on the board of directors for the Peking YMCA. The Rev. Lew was the Chinese delegate to three assemblies of the World Council of Churches, and a legislator for the Chinese government from 1936-1941, interpreting government regulations for mission schools in China. Because of conditions during Japan’s occupation of China and suffering from tuberculosis, the Rev. Lew was invited to the United States in 1942, where he lived in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights area, continuing to translate, write, and lecture, and mentor his Godson George Chen. He relocated to a sanitarium in New Mexico for the final year of his life.

He was regarded as one of the most important Christian leaders in the early twentieth century in the Republic of China; his contributions to literature included founding and editing The Truth and Life Journal, The Amethyst Quarterly Journal, and Education for Tomorrow. He was also the co-editor of the Union Book of Common Prayer.

Hymns of Praise

Dr. Lew’s most important contribution was his service as the chairman of the commission and text editor of Hymns of Universal Praise (1936) under the musical editorship of Chinese Methodist missionary Bliss Mitchell Wiant (1895-1975). Hymns of Universal Praise has been considered a monumental achievement in Chinese Church history because six denominations joined together for the publication: Church of Christ in China, Chung Hwa Sheng Kung Hui (Anglican), Methodist Episcopal Church North, North China Kung Li Hui (Congregationalist), East China Baptist Convention, and Methodist Episcopal Church South. This hymnal is a significant symbol of the union of different denominations in China before the Communist revolution. As Dr. Lew stated in the Chinese Church National Assembly in 1922, “Though we have the manifold opinions, but do not lose the faith of loving one another.” The influence of this important hymnal is evident in the publication of two more editions in 1977 and 2006.

Hymns of Universal Praise included six hymns by Dr. Lew. He also translated 164 hymns from western sources including the familiar hymns, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” “Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come,” “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and “The Church’s One Foundation.”

Having such amazing contributions is likely due to his rich theological and literary experiences. Dr. Lew had many educational accomplishments; his study began at the United States Methodist College in Wenchau and St. John’s University in Shanghai. After graduating, he went to the United States and studied at the McCallie School, Chattanooga, Tennessee (1911-1913) and attended the University of Georgia. He completed his undergraduate studies and continued with graduate school at Columbia University (B.A., 1914; M.A., 1915). His theological study began at Union Theological Seminary (New York) from 1915-1917, and continued at Yale Divinity School, where he obtained a Bachelor of Divinity in 1918, Magna cum Laude. Returning to New York, he received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in psychology and education from the Teacher’s College, Columbia University and was ordained by the Congregational Church, Manhattan, New York in 1920.

Dr. Lew wrote the hymn “The Bread of Life for All Is Broken” in 1934. It is one of fifty indigenous hymns included in Hymns of Universal Praise. The original lyrics profoundly expressed the suffering of Jesus Christ. Walter Reginald Oxenham Taylor (1889-1973), a Church of England missionary who served with the Church Missionary Society in China, translated this hymn in 1943. He notes that because of the suffering during the war between China and Japan, Dr. Lew’s lyrics were full of “special poignancy.” Methodist missionary Bliss Wiant, the musical editor of Hymns of Universal Praise, reported that during World War II, Chinese Christians who were inmates of Japanese prison camps were not able to celebrate Holy Communion but would instead sing in a call-and-response manner to remember the suffering, death, and promised presence of Jesus Christ. We see the suffering and death of Christ throughout the first and second stanzas as well as the expectation for eternal hope and blessing in the third stanza.

A review of the original Chinese gives us a deeper understanding of the hymn’s lyrics. For example, in the first stanza, the phrase “Jesus Christ drank the cup” in the Chinese contains the idea of drinking fully of the bitter cup. In the second stanza, the English words, “bitter tears,” is a thousand tears of blood in the original Chinese. The lyrics are extremely emotional, portraying a stab of pain. Additionally in the second stanza, the sentence “our human pain still bearest thou with us” symbolizes that Jesus Christ suffers together with the Chinese people; at that time, everyone was affected by the anguish of the war. In the third stanza, the theme is the longing for “heaven’s joy” and “life forever.” In the original lyrics, “heaven’s joy” also means “happiness” and “good fortune,” so that we can feel how important hope was at that time.

The phonetic transcription from the Chinese was by Dr. I-to Loh (b. 1936). He points out, “The hymn is written in semi-classical Chinese and employs specific Buddhist terms and images with which traditional Chinese can easily identify.” The specific Buddhist terms can be found in the first stanza of the original lyrics “zhong-sheng,” which means every living being (for all), “xin-zong” means believers (we), and “feng-ming” means to act under orders (trust). Also, in the second stanza “ren-jian,” which means the human world (human beings). These terms are often used in Chinese Buddhism.

The tune name SHENG EN means “Holy grace.” The melody was composed by Su Yin-Lan (1915-1937) in 1934. Ms. Su was Bliss Wiant’s student of at Yenching University, dying at a young age in the bombing of Tientsin by the Japanese. Robert C. Bennett added harmony in 1988. This hymn was originally included in the Hymns of Universal Praise, and the first printing of this tune included a fermata at the end of each two measures. Later it was translated, and included in the BBC Hymn Book in 1951. Harmony was added to this version, using the sound of the open fifth degree to enrich the artistic mood of the lyrics and meditative feeling.

Because the lyrics emphasize the suffering of Christ, “The Bread of Life for All Is Broken” may be used during Holy Communion, especially on Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. This hymn, however, is a very important expression of faith during difficult times.

Guest Writer Huang Ching-Yu is a student of Dr. I-to Loh at the Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan where she has bacheor’s and master’s degrees in church music. She also studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.