Psalm 107:23-30; John 6:23-27; Genesis 1:1;
Text: William Whiting (1825-1878). John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876)
1. Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep Its own appointed limits keep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea! 2. O Christ! Whose voice the waters heard And hushed their raging at Thy word, Who walkedst on the foaming deep, And calm amidst its rage didst sleep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea
3. Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood Upon the chaos dark and rude, And bid its angry tumult cease, And give, for wild confusion, peace; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!
4. O Trinity of love and power! Our brethren's shield in danger's hour; From rock and tempest, fire and foe, Protect them wheresoe'er they go; Thus evermore shall rise to Thee Glad hymns of praise from land and sea
The Fourth of July. Two hundred and forty-four years ago the Declaration of Independence was ratified. It was an amazing moment in world history. Even at that time there was lots of division as to whether it was the right thing to do. The writing and process of ratifying the Constitution some years later in 1788 with its Bill of Rights was no picnic either.
We are so divided as a nation many fear the center cannot hold. Civil society cannot endure when people do not feel safe. We may have taken for granted the freedoms assured in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights: freedom of religion, and its free exercise; the freedom of speech and the press; the freedom to peaceably assemble to protest, These were guaranteed because the Founders knew their history. They knew what happened during the religious wars of the 17th century and realized that religion had to be a private matter, not the state's.
Our divisions seem almost religious again. Lincoln noted after the Civil War how important it would be to bind up the wounds and go forward "With malice toward none and with charity for all." He urged the nation to finish the work that needed to be done. The virus and the protests, and riots, have made for a strange time. As I am writing, illicit fireworks are going off in my neighborhood--the Cities canceled all such shows to keep people from gathering. Still it is unsettling. We will need to do some work to bind up wounds after this. "Protect us wheresoe'er we go."
The hymn for today is a beloved prayer for those facing perils of all kinds. Known as the Navy hymn, it comes to us from England. It was written by William Whiting, a musician, poet and hymn writer, born in Kensington, England. Because of his musical gifts he became master at Winchester College Chorister’s School. He lived near the sea and knew its perils.
As an island, England had to be a sea faring nation. Waterways were the main ways people had to get around. Hymn writers frequently used the language of the sea to describe their troubles and difficulties. The Bible knows those dangers well. In Whiting's age, people had faced the perils at sea.
Whiting around this time had experienced a very rough voyage and remembered the passage from Psalm 107, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Then a young man he knew spoke to him about going to America. He was fearful of being on the ship for such a long time. The ocean frightened him. Whiting wrote the hymn in 1860 to comfort him.
This was at the time the editors of the hymnal Hymns Ancient and Modern were getting their first edition ready to be published in 1861. One of the most prolific composers of the Victorian Age, John Bacchus Dykes, wrote the tune Melita (a corruption of the word Malta, the island where the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked) for the text and submitted it to the editors in time for it to be included.
Almost overnight the hymn became the English Navy hymn. In 1879 it was adopted by the American Naval Academy in Annapolis. Every Sunday service at the chapel concluded with the hymn, led by the Midshipman’s Choir.
When people today hear it they may remember the funerals of presidents: John Kennedy was a Navy man; Franklin Roosevelt, (he had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy); Richard Nixon; and George H. W. Bush. It was also used by Senator John McCain; both he and Bush had been Navy pilots.
Benjamin Britten used the hymn in his opera Noyes Fludde for Noah's family to sing as the deluge begins. Winston Churchill made sure it was sung at the service he and President Roosevelt held on board the Prince of Wales battleship August 9, 1941, some months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Prince of Wales battleship was shot down in the Pacific by the Japanese just three days after Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It lost over 300 of its men.
Just the sounds of the opening strains bring us back to times when we heard it, usually in times of great national moment. It is a profoundly biblical text--referring to the Psalm, to Jesus calming the storm, to the Holy Spirit's breathing over the water, to asking for help for those in peril on the sea, but also in other situations of danger. Today as we celebrate the Fourth of July, I pray in the words of the hymn “And give, for wild confusion, peace;/Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee.” Amen, Lord Jesus, Amen.
First included in Hymns: Ancient and Modern, in 1861, the hymn has become obligatory for many Armed services in the English speaking world. In Britain it is the hymn of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, the British Army; and in the US, the Navy, the Coast Guard and Marine Corps, as well as for the navies of many Commonwealth Nations. Over time many stanzas have been added for one or another armed service, the Air Force, even space travel. It can be found in almost all main line denominational hymnals in the USA.
Congregation in Portsmouth
Prince of Wales meeting on August 9, 1941
In Noyes Fludde, Benjamin Britten's opera