Nearer, my God, to Thee

From the book "Lead, Kindly Light"  (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)

Just before midnight on 14th April, 1912, the mighty ocean liner Titanic, on her maiden voyage to America from Southampton, struck an iceberg in the freezing North Atlantic, bringing certain doom to the ship they had labelled “unsinkable” and watery graves to an estimated 1,500 people. As those who had been fortunate enough to find places in the lifeboats looked on helplessly at the steadily tilting ship, from the still-lit windows the sound of music and singing voices echoed eerily across the icy waters.

Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, Pastor John Harper, who had volunteered to remain on board because of the insufficient number of lifeboats, asked the ship’s orchestra to play one final spirit-lifting hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee”, as they awaited their fate.

The author of the hymn was Sarah Flower Adams, who was born at Harlow in Essex on 22nd February, 1805. Sarah and her elder sister Eliza grew up in an atmosphere of strict religious observance. When their mother died in childbirth at the age of 40, it was left to their father to continue the girls’ education in his own rather eccentric way – teaching them himself and taking them about the country in an old-fashioned one-horse chaise.

In their religious instruction Sarah and Eliza were taught to accept nothing and question everything, and while it no doubt broadened their minds, it did cause Sarah some problems in her adult life. With no clear guidance about what she should believe, she found herself, in her twenties, floundering in doubt. She wrote in a letter to a friend of her father’s “…I would give worlds to be a sincere believer, to go to my Bible as I used to, but I cannot.”

Like her father, Sarah wrote articles, essays and stories for the Monthly Repository, a Christian magazine of the time. A hint that her efforts to build up her faith had been successful was when she wrote of a painting “…we must seek and find our God. He is a God at hand, and not a God afar off.”

After marrying William Adams, also a writer for the Repository, Sarah had a brief excursion into the theatre, interrupted by her health, which was never strong. She also made public readings of her own works, such as the dramatic poem “Vivia Perpetua”, describing the trials and sufferings of the early Christian martyrs, upon her reading of which she sobbed aloud. “Nearer, my God, to Thee” was one of 13 hymns Sarah wrote for her beloved sister Eliza’s hymn compilation for the South Place Chapel.

Sarah Adams died of consumption in 1848, before “Nearer, my God, to Thee” achieved its national recognition, becoming a favourite of Queen Victoria, President McKinley of America and King Edward VII – it was played at his funeral.

 

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,

 

 

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!

 

A sixth verse was later added to the hymn by Ed­ward H. Bick­er­steth, Jr. as follows:

There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,

There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;

Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee.

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