Hymn Story: Sweet, Sweet Spirit

There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit was written by gospel songwriter Doris Mae Akers.

She was born in Brookfield, Missouri on May 21, 1923. She was one of ten children and developed an interest in music at an early age. By the age of six, she had taught herself to play piano by ear. She wrote her first song, “Keep the fire burning in me,” at the age of ten and two years later organized a five piece jazz band.

Doris Akers

At the age of twenty-two she moved to Los Angeles and encouraged a “thriving gospel music community.”

In 1958, she started the Sky Pilot Choir.

“Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds noted that Akers’ ability to capture the attention of a congregation came through “just letting go and releasing the Spirit of God.””

“Lindsay Terry comments on the origins of this song in an interview with Doris Akers in the late 1980s:

“[S]he related to me that one Sunday morning in 1962, while directing the Sky Pilot Choir, she said to her singers, ‘You are not ready to go in.’ She didn’t believe they had prayed enough! They were accustomed to spending time with her in prayer before the service, asking God to bless their songs. She said, ‘I feel that prayer is more important than great voices.’ They had already prayed, but this particular morning she asked them to pray again, and they did so with renewed fervor.

“As they prayed, Doris began to wonder how she could stop this wonderful prayer meeting. She said, ‘I sent word to the pastor letting him know what was happening. He was waiting in the auditorium, wanting to start the service. Finally, 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 her and she wrote the song the next day. Matthew 3:16-17 inspired the specific line “Sweet heavenly Dove.” This text focuses on the baptism of Jesus when “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.””

Doris said in an interview, “Songwriters always have their ears open to a song. The song started ‘singing’ to me. I wanted to write it down but couldn’t. I thought the song would be gone after the service. Following the dismissal, I went home. The next morning, to my surprise, I heard the song again, so I went to the piano and began to put it all down.” She had been given the now-famous “Sweet, Sweet Spirit.”

“When The United Methodist Hymnal was published in 1989, “Sweet, sweet Spirit” immediately became one of the favorite new hymns, and for many congregations, it became a staple during the greeting time in worship. Because it is easily memorized, the song is often played and sung as parishioners shake hands and embrace others gathered for worship.”

She was named the Gospel Music composer of the year in both 1960 and 1961. Many famous singers recorded her songs, including Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and George Beverly Shea. She was featured on two fo the Gaither homecoming videos { “Old Friends” and “Turn Your Radio On.”} in the late 1990s.

She also wrote over 300 other hymns such as “Lead Me, Guide Me” and “Lord, Don’t Move the Mountain.” The Smithsonian Institute labeled her songs and records “National Treasures.”

She died on July 26, 1995 in Minneapolis.

In 2001, she was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.

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