HYMN 68 Nearer, My God, To Thee
Norwegian: Nærmere, deg, min Gud
Danish: Nærmere, Gud til dig
Text: Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848). Tune: Lowell Mason (1792-1872)
1. Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me, Still all my song shall be, R/Nearer, my God, to thee; Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
2. Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down, Darkness be over me, my rest a stone; Yet in my dreams I'd be R/
3.There let the way appear, steps unto heaven; All that thou sendest me, in mercy given; Angels to beckon me R/
4 Then, with my waking thoughts bright with thy praise, Out of my stony griefs Bethel I'll raise; So by my woes to be R/
5 Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky, Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly, Still all my song shall be, R/
They sang it as the Titanic sank, everyone said. This was a hymn nearly everyone knew, and nearly everyone could sing, in four parts, barbershop style. I can remember many Sunday evenings singing this song, enjoying its harmonies and the words. The older people I was with knew it well for good reason. My great-uncle Fred told about sailing on the Oceanic, a sister ship of the Titanic, to Norway in 1899 when he was a little boy. It was the largest ship on the ocean for several years. He could well imagine the terror of its sinking. Everyone knew the story that when the Titanic ship hit the iceberg the ship’s band played the hymn until it sank..
The scholars are not sure. Survivors both said it was true and that it was not. Regardless of whether the band played it or not, most of the passengers knew it and could have been singing it as they waited for the end. It was the favorite hymn of the band leader. The hymn had struck a chord in people’s lives; they had it in their memory when they needed it; and without a doubt some were singing it before the ship went under.
The story of the Titanic continues to be told in books and movies. Something about it fascinates us. Is it a tale of human pride? One might think so. A woman with a ticket on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, on hearing someone say, “Not even God could sink this ship,” canceled her reservation, it was said, certain that such hubris would meet its match. As it did.
I had forgotten how Scriptural the hymn is with its references to Jacob sleeping on a stone for a pillow and dreaming of the ladder coming down from heaven with bright angels chorusing up and down the heights. The hymn speaks to people who are in trouble and need to know that God is present during their troubles.
The story of Jacob at Bethel is fascinating, filled with details that are baffling. Why did he sleep using a stone for a pillow? And then his dream: The picture of a ladder coming down from heaven with angels flying up and down, and then God’s speech to Jacob renewing the promise he had made to Abraham. Jacob rightly understood that it was a holy moment and memorialized it with the stone, anointing it, marking the place as the gate of heaven.
In John 1:50 Jesus refers to Jacob’s dream, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Jesus announces that he is the ladder between heaven and earth, part of God’s plan to take back the world by opening up the way between them, something only God could do.
My great uncle was 18 when the Titanic sank. His generation went on to live through the Great War, suffer through the Great flu pandemic of 1918-1919, the Depression, dust storms, crop failures, the death of several women in the family from childbirth and World War II. This hymn grew deeper and deeper for him as he and his family and friends sang it to meet all those terrors. No wonder the victims of the iceberg sang it. As the starry skies swept over them, and they were about to meet their maker, they may well have used these words to comfort themselves, "There let the way appear,/steps unto heaven;/All that thou sendest me,/ In mercy given." Terrified, but believing that God was their only hope, many slipped beneath the waves. Heaven opened; the Lord himself the way between.
Sarah Flower Adams lived among the well-educated of her day. She was born to English Dissenters. When she and her sister became orphans, they went to live in the home of a noted Unitarian pastor, William Johnson Fox. She and her sister came to share his beliefs. Sarah was what one would call an early feminist, writing a novel Viva Perpetua about a young wife who refused to take her husband’s rule and is put to death. She wrote literary criticism, knew Robert Browning the English poet well; became friends with Harriet Martineau, another feminist. She and her sister died young.
Lowell Mason, one of the significant hymn composers in America, wrote many favorite tunes people loved to sing. This tune served to make the hymn popular around the world.
BYU Men’s chorus
Scene from the 1997 movie plus...
Concordia College Choir, Clausen's arrangement