By Taylor Brantley
The Bible is full of theological issues ripe for debate. Breathe on Me, Breath of God was written by a man who studied such issues in great depth, yet always needed a reminder that at the Bible’s core is a message of simple truth.
Edwin Hatch was born in Derby, England, 1835. From a young age, Edwin stood out for his work ethic and intellect. While attending King Edward’s School – a highly prestigious school both of past and present – Edwin’s personal teacher made note of Edwin’s independent efforts in education. Whereas most children were eager to finish their lessons for the day, Edwin soaked in all he could, then pursued furthering learning in his own time.
Edwin went on to study at Pembroke College in Oxford. Prior to Edwin’s admission, the college was home to a group of men who called themselves the Birmingham Set. The group’s function was simple: the appreciation of arts and literature. Within the campus library, the Birmingham Set discussed poetry from Percy Shelley, novels from Charles Dickens, arts and architecture from John Ruskin, and so on. Beyond the library, the group was known to venture across Europe, visiting notable churches and medieval sites. Though they were well established when Edwin joined the college, by 1856 Edwin had become the group’s most dominant figure.
Beyond college, Edwin’s intellectual pursuits burned ever on. College professor, high-school rector, university vice-principle; Edwin was all of these and more. Being a man of God, Edwin was drawn to the study of deep theology, for it combined God and learning. Naturally, he became so well versed in theology that he became a religious lecturer. Of his lectures, he is most remembered for his Bampton lectures; lectures known for profound theological discourse. These lectures, which displayed Edwin at his most studious, were published and translated into various languages. However, the most famous publication of this highly educated man ended up being a prayer of simplest and most humble nature: Breathe on Me, Breath of God.
Edwin wrote Breathe on Me, Breath of God in 1878 and kept it private for many years. This adds to the unique nature of the hymn: it was originally meant only for Edwin and God. As much as Edwin loved complex thoughts and theologies, he understood that at the core of Christianity is something incredibly simple: faith in God. It is not too far a stretch to assume Edwin wrote the hymn as a reminder to never get bogged down in complex theology.
Though the hymn’s original intent was to be a private prayer, it reached new ears over the years, and in 1886, Breathe on Me, Breath of God was published by Henry Allen in The Congregational Psalmist. Since then, Edwin’s private prayer has become a prayer of the many.
“Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
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