Let us break bread together on our knees
Origins. In the study of spirituals, some songs were widely disseminated before they were committed to print, but others, like this one, can be traced to a particular region. “Let us break bread together on our knees” has its roots in coastal South Carolina, or more generally, a stretch of the U.S. east coast sometimes known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, named after the dialect. More specifically, this spiritual was first recorded among the students of the Penn School, St. Helena Island, South Carolina.
In 1925, the Journal of American Folk-Lore published an article, “Folklore from St. Helena, South Carolina” (vol. 38, no. 148, Apr.–June 1925), which included a variety of tales, riddles, proverbs, and spirituals, said to have been collected in 1923 from students at the Penn School. “Let us break bread together” appeared on pages 237-238, text only (Fig. 1). The text in this version appears much like it still does in some modern hymnals, except for a quatrain marked “Chorus,” which would imply it was sung after every stanza.
That same year, the Penn School published its own set of songs, Saint Helena Island Spirituals, as transcribed by visiting student/scholar Nicholas Ballanta, a native African who has received his musical training at the Institute of Musical Art in New York City. The text of this version is essentially the same as what had appeared in the Journal, but preserving the dialect of the singers. The harmonization was developed by a student group, the St. Helena Quartette, “whose singing is an evidence of the advance in harmonic conception, that is, the feeling for definite tonality, attained by the Negro in his new environment” (p. vii).
Only a few years later, another variant of this song was collected in the same region by The Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, a group based out of Charleston, South Carolina. Together, they published The Carolina Low-Country (NY: MacMillan, 1931), which included a collection of spirituals. They took the task of transcription seriously, acknowledging the challenge “of correctly notating even the melodies, and of endeavoring accurately to reproduce the words as the negroes pronounce them” (p. vii). At the same time, they noted how the singers freely add embellishments, and ultimately, “the singing of spirituals is a purely extemporaneous art” (p. 227).
This version of the song was collected in Beaufort, which is only seven miles from the Penn School. Unlike the harmonized version from 1925, this one reflects the more untrained, raw tradition of singing mostly in unison, with a leader who starts every verse/variation and the group following as soon as the new words are caught. This printing contains two additional variations, “We will all sing together on that day,” and “We will all pray together on that day” (Fig. 3). The melody is somewhat different, mostly in the third phrase, “When I’ll fall upon my knees,” rising upward rather than remaining static.
Only a year after this spiritual was published in St. Helena Island Spirituals, it was developed into a concert arrangement for solo voice and piano by J. Rosamond Johnson, published in The Second Book of Negro Spirituals (NY: Viking Press, 1926). The preface, written by James Weldon Johnson, acknowledges “the recent splendid collection made at the Penn Normal, Industrial and Agricultural School, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, by N.G.J. Ballanta, an accomplished African musician” (p. 12). For his arrangement, Rosamond added a couple of echoes (“yes, on our knees”), provided a more sophisticated harmonic underpinning, and raised the melody climactically in the third verse (Fig. 4). Concert arrangements like this helped the spiritual find a wider audience.
The song first entered American hymnals via the Churches of God Hymnal (Harrisburg, PA: Board of Publication, 1953). Its appearance in The Hymnbook, a joint Presbyterian/Reformed collection (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Church of the U.S., 1955), is a matter of some curiosity because the tune was labeled “Calhoun melody.” This would seem to indicate the compilers acquired the song from the Calhoun Colored School, Calhoun, Alabama. The school had published two editions of Calhoun Plantation Songs, edited by Emily Hallowell, in 1901 and 1907, but neither edition contained this song. The tune is labeled CALHOUN MELODY in some other later collections for reasons that are unclear.
Analysis. Scholars have attempted to learn more about the underlying culture of the song by focusing on certain phrases of the text, especially the act of taking Communion together “on our knees,” and “with my face to the rising sun.” The aspect of kneeling during Communion is common among some liturgical traditions. The act of doing this facing east is less common. This could be interpreted spiritually, since Christ is called the “dayspring” or “sunrise” in Luke 1:78, or it could be an indicator of a specific architectural tradition.
In Glory to God: A Companion (2016), pp. 523-524, hymnologist Carl P. Daw has offered a strong case for interpreting the song through the lens of the Episcopal Church. Regarding the rising sun, Daw noted:
Traditionally, liturgical churches have been built with the altar at the east end of a cruciform structure oriented on an east-west axis, and many colonial churches had one or more windows on the east wall. These were originally all clear glass, though some examples, such as those at St. Philip’s Church and St. Michael’s Church in Charleston, South Carolina, are now filled with stained glass, or the east window is now blocked by later renovations, as at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. So the experience of receiving Communion on one’s knees would often involve facing such a bright window.
This is supported by Horace Clarence Boyer’s article for the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 Companion (1994), no. 325:
Some see kneeling toward the east, however, as a reference to a pagan or Islamic custom. While it is true that the holy city of Mecca lies to the east, it is also true that Jerusalem is in the east. If the direction of the rising sun could be determined, the face could always be directed to the holy city. It is for this reason that it is an old tradition for Christian Churches to be aligned on an East-West axis so that early morning communion was always “into the sun.” This was the tradition of Anglican church building almost universally until about 1800.
Other features of the song tie in closely with the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The official version of the BCP in the early 1920s would have been the 1892 revision (Archive.org). The instructions call for the people to kneel. The Communion rite includes the recitation of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), interspersed with the plea “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law,” or in the absence of the Decalogue, the traditional Kyrie eleison, “Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us.” During the offering, the BCP calls for the people to sing a hymn, thus possibly inspiring the phrase, “Let us praise God together on our knees.” At the moment of presenting the bread and the wine, the priest recites the Last Supper from the synoptic Gospels:
For in the night in which he was betrayed, he took the bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me. Likewise, after supper, he took the cup; and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, drink ye all of this; for this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins; do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.
It might be worth noting that in the BCP, the blood is always called “the cup,” not the wine; this is a departure from the spiritual, but some hymnal versions prefer that language.
The connection to the Episcopal church is strengthened by Boyer’s claim there were “a number of slaves who attended Episcopal services in the south, especially in South Carolina where, prior to the Civil War, the bishop of that state claimed more African-American communicants than white.” The version of this spiritual in The Carolina Low-Country departs somewhat from this scene of Episcopal Communion, as it points forward to a day in the future rather than a ritual in the present.
Some of these details have been subjected to revision in denominational hymnals for which worshipers do not kneel, do not face east, nor celebrate Communion at sunrise (Young/Watson/Guenther: “this spiritual has suffered more than most from textual alteration by those anxious to adapt it for their own purposes. The reference to the rising sun has also caused problems for the literal minded”). Modern variations on the text are numerous, but the basic foundations of the spiritual make it a useful and helpful song of remembrance across cultures and denominations.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
12 February 2019
Irene V. Jackson, “Music among blacks in the Episcopal Church: some preliminary considerations,” Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Collection of Afro-American Spirituals and Other Songs (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1981).
Carlton R. Young, “Let us break bread together,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), pp. 463.
Horace Clarence Boyer, “Let us break bread together on our knees,” The Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3A (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), pp. 612-614.
Bert Polman, “Let us break bread together,” Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC, 1998), pp. 450-451.
Paul Westermeyer, “Let us break bread together,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 298-299.
Eric Sean Crawford, The Negro Spiritual of Saint Helena Island: An Analysis of Its Repertoire During the Periods 1860-1920, 1921-1939, and 1972-Present, dissertation (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2012).
Carl P. Daw Jr., “Let us break bread together,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), pp. 523-524.
Carlton Young, J.R. Watson, & Eileen Guenther, “Let us break bread together on our knees,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“Let us break bread together,” Hymnary.org:
Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor:
The Penn Center: