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Home News The Midweek Hymn: Nearer, My God, To Thee

The Midweek Hymn: Nearer, My God, To Thee

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THIS hymn is inextricably linked with the 1912 Titanic disaster, when the liner hit an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, and sank with the loss of 1,517 lives. It is said to have been played by the ship’s band as it went down, taking all the musicians with it.

The words were written by Sarah Fuller Flower Adams, who was born in 1805 in Great Harlow, Essex. Her father, Benjamin Flower (1755-1829), had been the radical editor of the Cambridge Intelligencer, an advocate of liberal political principles. In 1799 Flower was summoned before the House of Lords for an alleged libel on a bishop whose political conduct he had censured. After a short hearing he was found guilty of a breach of privilege, and sentenced to six months in Newgate Prison and a fine. During his imprisonment he was visited by Eliza Gould Flower (1770-1810) a governess and schoolmistress in Devon, though I can’t find out what the connection was. They married soon after his release. He then set up as a printer in Harlow. When Sarah was five and her sister, also Eliza, was seven, their mother died and Benjamin Flower brought up his daughters on his own. Around 1819, they moved to Dalston, in the Hackney parish, living near important figures in literature, including Harriet Martineau and Robert Browning, with whom they were closely involved. After Benjamin Flower died in 1829, when Sarah was 24, she moved in with the family of William Johnson Fox, a renowned radical minister at South Place Chapel on the edge of the City of London. At around this time she first became ill with tuberculosis, though apparently she rallied. Between the years 1832 and 1835, she contributed articles to the Monthly Repository, then edited by Fox, signing her articles ‘S. Y.’ as a nod to her pet name of Sally.

Another contributor was a railway engineer called William Bridges Adams, and they were married in 1834, setting up home in Loughton, Essex. Adams was distinguished in his field, being the inventor of the Adams axle, a design in use on railways in Britain until the end of steam traction in 1968. They had no children.

For a while, with the encouragement of her husband, Mrs Adams was an actress, making her first professional appearance in 1837 as Lady Macbeth with considerable success. This led to a further engagement in Bath, but her health was now too poor for her to carry it out. She turned to literature and in 1841 published a dramatic poem called Vivia Perpetua, considered to be her most important work. The same year Nearer, My God, To Thee was published in a book of hymns prepared by her sister Eliza, who had become a noted composer. By this time Eliza was ill with tuberculosis. Sarah looked after her until her death in 1846, then she herself died of the illness two years later at the age of 43. The sisters are buried with their parents in the Forest Street cemetery near Harlow.

The hymn is based on Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28, 11-12:

‘And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

‘And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it’ (King James Bible).

These are the words:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;

Still all my song shall be nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,

Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;

Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n;

All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n;

Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,

Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;

So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,

Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,

Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

The original tune was written by Sarah’s sister Eliza but in 1846 it was set to the tune Bethany by the leading American hymn composer Lowell Mason, and this is the version which is most familiar around the world. In Britain however it is also sung to Horbury, written in 1861 by John Bacchus Dykes, whose many other melodies include Hollingside (Jesu, lover of my soul), which I wrote about here, and Melita (Eternal Father, strong to save) which I wrote about here. Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote a setting called Propior Deo (Nearer to God) which is used by Methodists. There are numerous other settings too: Wikipedia lists 21 including the three mentioned above.

So to the Titanic. There is some dispute, which will probably never be resolved, about whether the band did play the hymn as the liner went down. Survivor Violet Jessop said in her 1934 account of the disaster that she had heard it; Archibald Gracie IV emphatically denied it in his own account, written soon after the sinking; wireless operator Harold Bride said that he had heard another song called Autumn. However it is known that the hymn was a favourite of the ship’s band leader Wallace Hartley, who had expressed a desire to have it performed at his funeral. There is also this account from George Orrell, the bandmaster of the rescue ship Carpathia. After he talked to survivors he related: ‘The ship’s band in any emergency is expected to play to calm the passengers. After the Titanic struck the iceberg the band began to play bright music, dance music, comic songs – anything that would prevent the passengers from becoming panic-stricken . . . various awe-stricken passengers began to think of the death that faced them and asked the bandmaster to play hymns. The one which appealed to all was Nearer, My God, To Thee.’ However I find it a little difficult to imagine the sort of civilised discussion Orrell seems to be describing.

Assuming that Nearer, My God, To Thee was played as the ship sank, there is then the question of which tune was used.

Bethany was used in three films called Titanic: a 1943 German one, a 1953 American one and the most recent, directed by James Cameron in 1997. However Wallace Hartley may not have been familiar with the American tune. He came from Colne, Lancashire, where his father was a Methodist choirmaster. Hartley senior used the Propior Deo version at his church, and this is the one which was played at Wallace’s funeral, his fully-dressed body having been recovered two weeks after the sinking with his music case strapped to his chest. The 1958 British film A Night to Remember used Horbury.

By far the most numerous recordings on YouTube are the American tune Bethany.

Here are the Peerless Quartet in 1926:

This is the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford:

This lovely performance is by the Ivy String Quartet:

Here it is in the 1953 film Titanic:

And here in the 1997 film Titanic:

This is Horbury, in a 1971 performance by the choir of Guildford Cathedral:

Here it is in A Night to Remember (1958):

Finally, this is Propior Deo, the Sullivan version which was played at bandleader Wallace Hartley’s funeral in 1912.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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