The song most commonly sung during Communion among United Methodists is the African American spiritual “Let Us Break Bread Together”. The procession to the altar rail offers the opportunity to sing. The simple structure of this spiritual provides the ideal music to accompany this ritual both because of its text and because of the spirit of the music. It is easily memorized and harmonized.
What are the roots of “Let Us Break Bread Together”, among the best known of African American spirituals? In a recently published article in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, written by United Methodist Hymnal editor, Dr. Carlton Young, he reveals the probable roots and major variants of this spiritual. Dr. Young suggests that this “spiritual was formed in the West African Gullah/Geechee slave culture that developed in the coastal areas of South-Eastern colonial America, including St. Helena Island, Beaufort, and Charleston, South Carolina…”.
The test of the version that is commonly sung in the United States was first published in The Journal of American Folklore (1925). The Journal included spirituals, as well as African American folk tales and proverbs that were collected by students at the Penn School on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.
A second version appeared in Saint Helena Island Spirituals (1925) by Nicholas Ballanta, a very significant collection that included 103 Gullah spirituals. This version incorporates the same basic text, but with variations based on the slave dialect of the region:
Let us break bread togeder on our knees… When I fall on muh knees wid muh face to de risin’ sun Oh Lawd hab mercy on me.
It has been said that “the rising sun” refers to the ancient tradition of worshipping towards the east. Since the naves of most cathedrals and some churches face east, the rising sun is a symbol of God, the source of new life and light. The prophet Malachi proclaims that “the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). Many Bible scholars believe this is a reference to Christ’s coming.
“Let Us Break Bread Together” calls Christians together in celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Whether we kneel or stand, “the attitude of the heart is worship” as we come before Christ, the host of the feast.
I pray that you find this information to be as enlightening as I did.
For God’s glory only,
Ella W. Davis, Director of Music
Portions have been quoted from an article by C. Michael Hawn, University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.