In the 1899 hymn “Dwell in Me, O Blessed Spirit,” Fanny Crosby offers a simple prayer to the Holy Spirit: dwell in my heart, and order my life toward your eternal ends. It’s an important plea, and one we should probably make more often than we do. While this song has been a mainstay in the CRC repertoire for decades, it was changed in 1987 in ways that I think affect the meaning of the song. Let’s look at its original and modified forms, and consider how the changes affect the meaning and use of the song.
The original text has three verses, each ending with a part of the overall prayer.
1. “Dwell in me, o blessed Spirit! How I need They help divine! In the way of life eternal, Keep, O keep this heart of mine!”
2. “Round the cross where Thou hast led me, Let my purest feelings twine. With the blood from sin that cleansed me, Seal anew this heart of mine.”
3. “Let me feel Thy sacred presence; Then my faith will ne’er decline. Comfort Thou and help me onward; Fill with love this heart of mine.”
I like how the verses are neatly structured to fit together, with three distinct, but related, requests for our hearts: keep, seal, and fill. In the modified version, the second verse is omitted, so this lyrical structure is lost. Also, the third verse was changed slightly so that it begins “Grant to me...” instead of “Let me feel…” This effects a subtle shift in its underlying theological implications, almost as if the hymnal editors felt the original text begged the question, “Is the Spirit actually present?” I don’t see this change as terribly important, but I tend to think of God as ever-present and omnipresent, though there are times we don’t feel it. So asking the Spirit to let us feel His presence seems apt, since He’s already here.
The song also has a refrain, which is where the most significant change was made. The original:
“Dwell in me, O blessed Spirit! Gracious Teacher, Friend divine!
For the home of bliss that waits me, O prepare this heart of mine!”
The modified refrain is mostly the same, apart from the first half of the second line:
“For the kingdom work that calls me, O prepare this heart of mine.”
I don’t know what Crosby’s inspiration was, but her words seem to fit well with 1 John 2:24-27 (NIV):
“As for you, see that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us—eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.”
When I read Crosby’s lyrics, I find a song for those who are facing the hardships of living in a fallen world. How difficult it can be to carry on for Christ, especially when we feel alone and hurt. We would rather give up, let hate take over our hearts, and go back to what we really want - a life lived only for ourselves. And that’s exactly what we would do, were it not for the Holy Spirit. This song is for every day, when we need to the Spirit to keep, seal, and fill our hearts. We need His comfort, His teaching, and His friendship. We need the Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts every day so that we can remain in Him and, according to His promise, live in eternal bliss with God.
I think the change to the refrain takes the song in a different direction. It places the focus on asking God to prepare our hearts for His calling, also something we need to do. In its modified form, I think this hymn is well suited for use in a service on stewardship or as a prayer before embarking on a missions trip. Of course, the work for God’s Kingdom is a daily task, so the new version could be used any time.
What do the two versions of this song say to you? Your answer to that question will help you decide when to use this hymn, and which version to use.