The hymn, “Break Thou the Bread of Life,” came out of the Chautauqua Movement of the late 1800s. While the Chautauqua Institution still enrolls some 8,000 students a year in various summer courses, most people know little or nothing about it. That was hardly the case in its heyday. Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most American thing in America.” During World War I, Woodrow Wilson deemed it an “integral part of the national defense.”
The Chautauqua Movement was founded in 1874 on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State by a Methodist layman, Lewis Miller, and a Methodist pastor (later bishop), John Vincent. Known originally as the Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly, it was intended to be a summer training program for Sunday school teachers, but quickly expanded to include a wide variety of classes and entertainments — even Broadway plays, operas, and (gasp!) movies.
Mary Lathbury, a commercial artist, enjoyed visiting Chautauqua during the summer. John Vincent asked her to write a hymn to be sung at Chautauqua Bible studies. While “Break Thou the Bread of Life” is often used as a communion hymn today, Mary wrote it originally to honor Jesus as the “bread of life” and the “living Word” of God (verse 1). It is a fitting accompaniment to Bible studies, because it prays that we will be able to move “beyond the sacred page” — meaning the Bible — to the “living Word” — Christ himself. It prays for Christ’s blessing (verse 2) so that we might be freed from everything that would bind us so that we might find peace. Even though this hymn was written more than a century ago, the peace to which it aspired is a peace that we still need today.
Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan