The author of this hymn, Mary A. Lathbury, was born in 1841 in Manchester, New York. Her father and brothers were Methodist ministers. She was gifted with exceptional abilities as an artist and poet, and she regularly wrote articles for religious and children’s periodicals and illustrated them with her artwork.
In 1874 a summer school for Sunday school teachers was organized by Methodist minister Dr. John H. Vincent at a camp meeting site on the shores of Lake Chautauqua in southwest New York. It was very successful and attracted people from around the country, eventually becoming a national movement. Mary became known as the “Poet Laureate of Chautauqua.” Dr. Vincent asked her to write a hymn that could be sung at every session of the Bible Study Hour. She quickly wrote the two-stanza hymn, “Break Thou the Bread of Life.” The tune for her hymn was composed by William F. Sherwin, a noted choir director and the music director at Chautauqua. He had studied under Lowell Mason, a well-known hymn composer and music educator, and was a teacher at the New England Conservatory in Boston.
This hymn is frequently used at the Lord’s Supper simply because it speaks of bread. But it was written as a prayer that all the students would be fed by the Word of God, as the multitudes were fed by the five loaves Christ had blessed. Students of the Bible are encouraged to go beyond the printed page and to seek and experience Christ, the Living Word. The prayer also asks the Lord to bless the truth as Christ blessed the loaves. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. (John 17:17) The message of the hymn is that knowing Christ of the Scripture brings truth, breaks the power of bondage, and provides peace to each person who trusts Christ as “all in all.” And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)
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