The Story Behind…Nearer, My God, To Thee

The Story Behind…
Nearer, My God, To Thee

Few hymns have been sung in more tragic circumstances than this one on the night of April 14, 1912, on board the sinking Titanic. The great ship, at that time the greatest in the world, was on its maiden voyage to New York with a happy, expectant company of over two thousand people including many famous ones. Shortly before midnight, on the third day on the Atlantic, as the evening parties on the ship were breaking up, the ship shuddered from stem to stern. The lights, however, still blazed, the band played, and while the passengers turned to one another with anxious looks none of them doubted that all was well.

The alarms rang through the ship, and within a few minutes passengers were standing on deck with their life-belts knowing that the ship had struck an iceberg, and that the sea was pouring into a vast rent down below.

The supply of life-belts and lifeboats proved inadequate, and while the great ship listed heavily towards her doom alternate waves of fear and calm spread through the passengers lining the decks. It was then that the band played the tune of Nearer, My God, to Thee, and the passengers, all of whom were looking death in the face, sang

E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee.

In three hours the Titanic went down into the icy Atlantic, and only 711 lives were saved.

Sarah Flower Adams was a young woman of 43 when she died in 1848, and her home was at Harlow in the English county of Essex. Her hymns are more widely used in America than elsewhere, particularly amongst Unitarians.

Nearer, My God, to Thee is based on Jacob’s dream (Gen. 28:12) in which the ladder, set up on earth, reaches to heaven, a vision which the writer deftly weaves into her hymn:

There let the way appear,
Steps unto heaven;
All that Thou sendest me
In mercy given:
Angels to beckon me
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 to Thee!