The anthem that our youth choir sang in church this morning has one of my favorite texts, “Gracious Spirit, dwell with me.” It’s a beautiful poem about the fruits of the Spirit and the different ways that faith transforms us into a people longing to live as Christ’s light in the world.
The text of this anthem comes from a hymn written by Thomas T. Lynch in 1855. Lynch (1818-1871) was an English Congregationalist preacher known for his numerous works of prose, hymnwriting, and the freshness and spirituality of his preaching. He was a unique theologian for his time, having withdrawn from university partly because of an ailing health that would plague him his whole life, and partly because his free spirit was not well-suited to the routine of college life. This gave him a theological perspective that was different from many of his contemporaries, and that served him well during his life of ministry.
His ministry reached far beyond his own congregation to include people from other churches and students from the Theological Colleges of London, who were attracted to him by the freshness and spirituality of his preaching. He became a significant force within the Congregationalist Church in the 19th century… but for this very reason, he also unintentionally became a controversial figure.
In 1855, Lynch published a supplemental hymnbook to Isaac Watts’ hymnal, called The Rivulet, so named “for Christian poetry is indeed a river of life, and to this river my rivulet brings its contribution.” It was in this supplement that the hymn “Gracious Spirit” was first published. The great hymnologist John Julian said, “Lynch’s hymns are marked by intense individuality, gracefulness and felicity of diction, picturesqueness, spiritual freshness, and the sadness of a powerful soul struggling with a weak and emaciated body.”
Because of Lynch’s frequent references to nature in his hymn texts and his fresh poetic style, this hymnal became the center of the “Rivulet Controversy,” one of the most bitter hymnological controversies known in the annals of modern Congregationalism, almost splitting the Congregational Church and causing some to condemn Lynch for promoting bad theology.
In the middle of the turbulence and controversy over his life’s work, Lynch demonstrated the true mark of the Spirit, saying: “The air will be all the clearer for this storm. We must conquer our foes by suffering them to crucify us rather than by threatening them with crucifixion.” Though his faith was never shaken, his ailing health suffered and it is thought that this incident contributed to his early death. John Julian wrote, “Time, however, and a criticism, broader and more just, have declared emphatically in favour of his hymns as valuable contributions to cultured sacred song.”
1. Gracious Spirit, dwell with me: I myself would gracious be,
and with words that help and heal, would thy life in mine reveal,
and, with actions bold and meek, would for Christ my Savior speak.
2. Truthful Spirit, dwell with me: I myself would truthful be.
and with wisdom kind and clear, let thy life in mine appear,
and, with actions lovingly, mirror Christ’s sincerity.
3. Mighty Spirit, dwell with me: I myself would mighty be,
mighty so as to prevail where unaided I would fail,
ever, by a mighty hope, pressing on and bearing up.
4. Holy Spirit, dwell with me: I myself would holy be;
break from sin and choose the good, cherish what my Savior would,
and whatever I can be, give to God who gave me thee.
This hymn won’t be found in many of our modern hymnals, which I think is sad– the text is such a wonderful representation of the Church seeking the gifts of the Spirit, and I think it’s a text that speaks especially to the church today as it struggles through bitter controversies of its own.
Holy Spirit, help us find words that help and heal. Give us wisdom kind and clear, that our loving actions would mirror Christ’s sincerity. Help us break from sin and choose good, that Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
To learn more about this hymn and Lynch’s life, you can check out hymnary.org and the Dictionary of Hymnology (1907).