United Methodist hymn's 'sweet, sweet Spirit'-filled origins

United Methodist hymn no. 334, "Sweet, Sweet Spirit," was inspired when Doris Akers, legendary gospel music songwriter and choir director, insisted her choir spend more time praying. Photo by Steven Kyle Adair at Glendale United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.
United Methodist hymn no. 334, "Sweet, Sweet Spirit," was inspired when Doris Akers, legendary gospel music songwriter and choir director, insisted her choir spend more time praying. Photo by Steven Kyle Adair at Glendale United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.

One choir director’s insistence that her singers weren’t prayed up enough resulted in a beloved United Methodist hymn, “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”

On a Sunday morning in 1962, the story goes, Doris Mae Akers would not dismiss the choir members, feeling that they needed to spend more time praying before entering the worship service.

“You are not ready to go in,” she is quoted as saying, when discussing the origin of no. 334 in “The United Methodist Hymnal.”

As was the custom, Akers, director of the Sky Pilot Choir in Los Angeles, prayed with choir members before every performance, asking God to bless their songs.

This particular morning, she asked her choir members to pray again. As they fervently prayed, she hesitated to stop the impromptu prayer meeting, although the pastor was waiting on them before starting the service.

“Finally,” Akers recalled, “I was compelled to say to the choir, ‘We have to go. I hate to leave this room and I know you hate to leave, but you know we do have to go to the service. But there is such a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place.’”

The phrase stayed with Akers and she wrote the hymn the next day.

  
In this video from February 15, 2021, choir members at Algiers United Methodist Church in New Orleans sing "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" at the start of worship. 

Watch.

The refrain, “Sweet Holy Spirit, Sweet heavenly Dove,” was inspired by Matthew 3;16-17, Akers said. The scripture, about Jesus’ baptism, reads, “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him; And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (KJV)

An instant hit

“Sweet, Sweet Spirit” was added to the “The United Methodist Hymnal” in 1989, immediately becoming a favorite, according to Dr. C. Michael Hawn, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

“For many congregations, it became a staple during the greeting time in worship,” he notes. “Because it is easily memorized, the song is often played and sung as parishioners shake hands and embrace others gathered for worship.”

The hymn also is popular during Pentecost, Hawn points out.

From A.M.E. church to global stage

By the time Akers wrote and published “Sweet, Sweet Spirit,” the Missouri native who grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, had been writing and recording gospel music for 15 years. In 1948, she formed the Simmons-Akers Trio, which recorded on several labels, including RCA Victor. In 1957, she released her first solo album, “Sing Praises Unto the Lord.” The next year, Akers and her friend, Mahalia Jackson, co-wrote, “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain,” which sold more than 1 million records.

It was during the late 1950s that Akers started the Sky Pilot Choir, a racially-diverse choir that made numerous radio and television appearances, in addition to performing regularly at Los Angeles churches. The group recorded several albums and garnered a large following. Akers continued recording and performing across six decades, affiliating in the 1990s with the Gaither label and being featured on Bill Gaither’s gospel videos “Old Friends, Turn Your Radio On” and “Precious Memories.”

'Miss Gospel Music'

Akers, who was known as “Miss Gospel Music,” repeatedly was honored for her contributions to the genre. She was named Gospel Music Composer of the Year in 1960 and 1961 by the Gospel Music Association. In 1992, the Smithsonian Institute honored Akers as “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States.” She was posthumously inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and, in 2011, into the Southern Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

Akers died on July 26, 1995, at the age of 72, in Minneapolis, where she was serving as minister of music at Grace Temple Deliverance Center.

Crystal Caviness works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. Contact her by email or at 615-742-5138.