Chapter 6 Hymns Sung in Tragic Moments

Strange indeed are the places in which hymns have been sung. In divers perils, and under tragic circumstances, have people derived consolation and courage in times of need by lifting up their hearts in sacred song.

A few hours before the heroic Nurse Cavell was executed, she was visited by Mr. Gahan, the British chaplain. Having read to her a portion of Scripture, and commended the brave woman into God’s gracious keeping, she joined him in repeating Lyte’s hymn, “Abide with me.” As he said good-bye, she smiled, and said, “We shall meet again; ‘Heaven’s morn shall break, and earth’s vain shadows flee.’”

Lord Kitchener ordered this hymn to be sung at the thanksgiving service at Khartoum, to commemorate the victory of Omdurman, and to acclaim that country for Christianity. When, during the Great War, Lord Allenby took Jerusalem without firing a single shot, “Abide with me” was afterwards sung amid impressive scenes.

A beautiful story comes from Uganda, during the violent persecutions of the Christians there. Some of the native lads were taken by their enemies, and after inflicting dreadful torture they bound them to a scaffold, under which a fire was kindled. As the flames and smoke gradually rose they were cruelly mocked by their persecutors, but through it all the brave Christian lads clung with great tenacity to their faith, and with their latest breath they lifted up their voices to God in the sweet hymns the good missionaries had taught them to sing.

When the Armenian Christians were being brutally massacred by the Turks, we are told that they sang a translation of “Rock of Ages.”

It is also related that Bishop Marvin, wandering homeless in Arkansas, during the American Civil War, found himself marvellously cheered when in the wilderness he overheard a widowed old woman singing, “Nearer, my God to Thee,” in the midst of a dilapidated log cabin.

Another incident of the Civil War, also relating to this hymn, concerns a little drummer boy who lay dying on the battlefield of Fort Donelson. The poor lad had lost an arm, and as his life-blood ebbed away, he was heard to raise his voice as he sang his favourite hymn, rendering with his latest breath:

“Nearer, my God to Thee,
Nearer to Thee;
E’en though it be a cross
That raiseth me!”

Possibly the most tragic incident associated with this hymn occurred in the spring of 1912, when the Titanic, “that greatest of all ships, so glorious in strength and beauty,” sank in mid Atlantic, with the loss of over sixteen hundred lives. Of the awful calamity which befell the mighty monarch of the deep, on that ill-fated Sunday morning, much has been written; but through the dimness of time’s fog the vision of that mighty ship remains. Faintly there appear the lights gleaming across the dark waters, tier above tier, street above street. Ever and anon might be heard gay music from her decks, and the laughter of women borne lightly on the wind. Then suddenly there is heard the sound of a dreadful shock, the ripping of steel plates by a hidden iceberg, the stagger of that mighty vessel as she receives her death-blow. Then there comes the last plunge forward, the cries of agony in one awful chorus of despair, as the great floating city disappears into the ocean’s dark abyss. Amid that awful scene, there remains vividly portrayed in the memory an event which will always be associated with this dreadful catastrophe. When hope of salvation began to wane, in order to avoid a panic even at the last, the heroic bandsmen assembled on deck and played lively tunes to buoy up the spirits of the passengers. But, as the last moments of that great and mighty sea monster drew nigh, and when all hope of salvation had vanished, there was a pause in the music, then out in the clear air of that fatal Sunday morning, there arose to heaven the plaintive strains of that immortal hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!” It is not generally known that the person who suggested the hymn was the Rev. John Harper, of Walworth Baptist Church, London. He was on his way to America with his daughter. It is said that he got together a number of passengers who knelt with him in prayer as the vessel sank, and at his request the band struck up the sweet and familiar hymn. A sailor who was present, and was afterwards rescued, told the story of the good minister whose name was then unknown.

“Nearer, my God, to Thee,” was a great favourite of President McKinley, and as he lay dying by the hand of an assassin, he was heard to sing faintly the words of that beautiful hymn. It was also a favourite of our late King Edward, who once wrote: “Among serious hymns, there is none more touching nor one that goes more truly to the heart than ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee!’” This hymn was written by Sarah Adams, the daughter of a couple who first met in Newgate Gaol, where her father had been sent to lie for six months for defending the French Revolution, and criticising the political conduct of a certain Bishop Watson.

A remarkable story is related by one of the Fisk University singers, who was on board the ill-fated steamer Seawanhaka, when she took fire. Driven by the flames, he, along with the greater number of passengers, flung himself into the sea. Swimming to where his wife was struggling in the water, he bade her place her hands firmly on his shoulders, while he endeavoured to reach some wreckage to which they might cling. This, his wife did until almost exhausted, she murmured, “I can hold on no longer!” “Try a little longer,” was the response of the wearied and agonized husband; “let us sing ‘Rock of Ages.’” And as the sweet strains floated over the turbulent waters, it was heard by the sinking and dying. One after another they raised their heads above the sullen waves, joining a feeble effort in this sweet pleading prayer:

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.”

As the song rose, their strength was renewed; another and yet another received fresh courage. And now in the distance could be seen a boat approaching. Could they hold out till it arrived? Still they sang; and ere long, with superhuman strength, laid hold of the lifeboat, upon which they were borne in safety to land. The survivor, who was inspired in those desperate moments to sing the prayer of his heart, believes that Toplady’s “Rock of Ages “saved many another besides himself and his wife.

Charles Wesley’s well-known hymn, “Jesus, Lover of my soul,” has also proved a source of comfort and consolation under similar circumstances. The Ocean Queen was wrecked in the English Channel, and a steamer cruising along in the darkness soon after heard the sound of singing coming across the water. The tune was familiar, and they could faintly catch the words:

“Jesus, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high;
Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.”

The captain bore his vessel down in the direction from whence came the singing, and presently an object was observed in the sea. As he approached, the captain discovered it was a woman with a child hugged to her breast, clinging to some wreckage belonging to the ill-fated ship in which she had sailed, and he immediately lowered a boat. Guided by the singing, which now and again almost died away, the sailors soon reached the brave woman, who, with death’s dark waters all around, was singing her song of trust to her faithful Lord and God.

In the summer of 1912, the sailing ship Criccieth Castle, of Carnarvon, met with disaster off Cape Horn, the most southerly point of South America, and the crew had to abandon the ship. The captain, his wife, and four-year-old son, the second officer, and thirteen of the crew got into the large lifeboat, while the other officers and men left in a smaller boat, which was never again heard of. The weather was intensely cold, and owing to a bad leak in the boat there was never less than eighteen inches of water in it, although some of the men were continually baling it out. For the last seven days of that awful journey of two hundred miles to the Falkland Islands they were entirely without food, and six men died. One night, when all hope seemed gone, one of the starving sailors suddenly burst into a hymn:

“Light in the darkness, sailor, day is at hand!
See o’er the foaming billows fair Haven’s land,
Drear was the voyage, sailor, now almost o’er;
Safe within the lifeboat, sailor, pull for the shore!”

Its effect was magical. The exhausted men, still toiling doggedly at the oars with what strength remained to them, sat bolt upright as the first few notes floated out over the silent waste of waters. The hymn inspired them, put new heart into them, and they bent to their work again with hope rekindled in their breasts. Every night, until land was reached, the sailor sang the hymn to cheer his comrades. It was an old hymn, written in the language of the sea, urging all voyagers on the sea of life to get a passage in the lifeboat of salvation, so as to ensure a safe journey to the shores of the Better Land. The refrain is specially appropriate and inspiring:

“Pull for the shore, sailor; pull for the shore!
Heed not the rolling waves, but bend to the oar;
Safe in the lifeboat, sailor, cling to self no more;
Leave the poor old stranded wreck, and pull for the shore!”

P. P. Bliss is the writer of both words and music of this hymn, which, because of its nautical appeal, has always been a special favourite amongst mission workers in our various sea ports. It would, no doubt, be in this connection that the sailor who sang the song to cheer the sinking spirits of his shipmates first heard the joyful melody. The following narrative suggested the writing of the hymn: “We watched the wreck with great anxiety. The lifeboat had been out some hours, but could not reach the vessel through the great breakers that raged and foamed on the sandbank. The boat appeared to be leaving the crew to perish. But in a few minutes the captain and sixteen sailors were taken off, and the vessel went down.

“‘When the lifeboat came to you, did you expect it had brought some tools to repair your old ship?’ “I asked one of the rescued men.

“‘Oh, no, she was a total wreck. Two of her masts were gone, and if we had stayed mending her only a few minutes, we must have gone down, sir.’”

“‘When once off the old wreck, and safe in the lifeboat,’” I continued, “‘What remained for you to do?’”

“‘Nothing, sir,’” was the ready reply, “‘but just to pull for shore.’”

How the singing of hymns did indeed soothe the savage breasts of a cruel band of Chinese brigands, who had captured and imprisoned a number of our missionaries, was told by Mr. R. W. Porteous at a special meeting recently held in the Kingsway Hall, London, under the auspices of the China Inland Mission. Roped together, the unfortunate missionaries were compelled to march for miles along a rough mountainous road till they reached one of the brigands’ strongholds, into which Mr. Porteous and his wife were flung. “We were not anticipating death,” said Mr. Porteous, “but the joy and glory beyond it. Then one of the guards brought me my concertina’, and asked me to play it. The thumb-straps had been taken off; but after tying it up with tape and string I managed to play them some tunes; and then they asked us to sing to them. Together we stood there, my wife and I, well knowing that at any moment the order for our execution might be carried out, and we sang:

‘Some day the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing;
But oh, the joy when I shall wake
Within the palace of the King!’”

One moonlight night, soon after, they were taken out to a lonely spot on a hill. “This is the place,” said the officer, and one of the brigands who carried the executioner’s knife took it down from his shoulder. “We stood looking up at the stars,” said Mr. Porteous, as he told the story, “and God’s peace came into our hearts, and we could not restrain ourselves from singing praise to Him. We sang:

‘Face to face shall I behold Him,
Far beyond the starry sky;
Face to face in all His glory,
I shall see Him by and by.’”

One of the officers in charge turned to the native prisoners and said, “Listen to these foreigners singing. They are not afraid to die.” “We do not know,” continued Mr. Porteous, “whether it was the singing that touched the hearts of the guards and kept them from carrying out their threat to kill us, but we do know it was the restraining hand of God.” They were preserved that night, and after five weeks’ close confinement were miraculously released.

Though more than a decade has passed since the days when Europe was rent from corner to corner with the ravages of the Great War, there are still echoes of those dark days, when, amid the thunder of guns, could be heard the singing of our gallant lads. Songs they had; and yet in the hour when facing death, how often would rise to their lips the hymns they learned at Sunday school or in the old home. How the singing of a simple chorus at a critical moment gave new strength and courage, was told by a young R.A.M.C. officer. It happened during one of the landings of our men at Gallipoli. Detachments had landed and were scaling the rocks, when the Turks attacked in overwhelming force. The confusion was appalling, and to add to the difficulties of the situation, the British battleships could not support their comrades for fear of mowing as many of them down as the enemy. The seamen, with perspiration pouring down their faces at the agony of restraint, stood to their guns, longing to fire, and yet unable to do so. They could see their brave comrades fighting and falling, now gaining, now losing, and yet they dared not send off a single shell to defend them. Then from somewhere a voice rang out, in the words of the well-known chorus:

“For you I am praying,
I’m praying for you.”

It was instantly caught up and rolled out till the volume of song reached the fighting men on shore, and all at once a change was seen. The men drew together with a firmer front, and succeeded in pressing back the enemy. Now came the sailors’ longed-for opportunity, and the guns immediately belched forth from all the ships. One terribly wounded boy afterwards gave his testimony that the chorus, which some unknown voice had struck up amid the din of battle, had helped him in a perfectly wonderful way, and how it had penetrated the deafening noise, giving new strength and courage. In spite of having both legs shot away, this young hero smiled bravely, and whilst his wounds were being dressed, he could only speak of all that the chorus had meant to him and many others, during those terrible moments.

How often during the great struggle, has the plaintive strain of Newman’s famous hymn, “Lead, kindly Light,” been heard, under strange and touching circumstances. At the battle of the Marne, two comrades took part in an attack upon the enemy trenches, when one of them—a fine Christian lad—was mortally wounded, and as he lay in the trenches dying, he sang that hymn through. “And as I lay at his side, firing at the advancing Germans,” said his comrade—who afterwards told the story—“it seemed as if the angels in heaven were listening. I can never forget the feelings I had. The last verse seemed to rise and rise until it flooded the trenches. Strength was given him to sing in his last moments as he had never sung before.”

And what was the verse?

“So long Thy power hath blessed be, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since and lost awhile.”

The brave soldier lad had greeted his loved ones in the midst of battle. He died singing and entered the land of cloudless love. The night had gone, death was swallowed up in victory.

A chaplain, who accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to the Balkans, gives a thrilling account of the remarkable change which suddenly came over the assembled troops on board a large transport, when, in the darkness of the night, some of the lads struck up an old-fashioned hymn. “The night before we landed at Salonica,” he writes, “we arranged a great farewell concert on board the transport. Two thousand five hundred officers and men, including the general and the ship’s captain, were present. We were anchored in what, perhaps, is the most beautiful bay in the world. During the day we had feasted our eyes on the wonderful old world city, with its minarets, spires, palaces, and monasteries. We had gazed at the golden sunset, and the purple mountain ranges of the Balkans, and we wanted to sing. The programme was of a varied character, and had to be carried out in the darkness, as no lights were allowed. We had some wonderful talent on board. A choir of Welsh soldiers sang in a remarkable manner ‘The Comrades’ Song of Hope,’ and ‘Land of My Fathers.’ They thrilled us, but they did something more—they inspired our souls and lifted us to heaven. I asked them to sing again, and Welshmen are as a rule deeply religious and love hymns. They did not respond with any rollicking chorus, but sang the grand old hymn:

‘There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar,
For the Father waits over the way,
To prepare us a dwelling place there.
In the sweet…by and by…
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.’

“Can I describe the effect? Impossible! A solemn hush stole over the ship—a silence which grips the soul. You could feel the influence of heaven at work. Here were over two thousand weary travellers, thousands of miles from home, and they were thinking of dear ones left behind. Would they ever return to the old village? Would they ever see their loved ones again? Many, alas, never; but, stealing over the waters of the Eastern ocean, and echoing over the old mountains of Serbia and Greece, was a hymn that possibly had never before been sung in those parts, and it gave just the message those brave, and yet troubled lads of ours wanted. What if they should fall in battle, and be buried in a strange land? To those whose trust for salvation was in Christ there would be a glad reunion some day, in the sweet by and by, in that heaven of love where all sorrow and parting would be over. The General, a fine Christian, gave the lads a parting message, and good seed was sown. How all this would have rejoiced the hearts of St. Paul and his followers, the ancient Thessalonians! The apostle carried to those parts the message of life after death through the resurrection of our Lord from the dead, and two thousand years afterwards British soldier lads, on their way to take part in a great struggle, sing of the same hope on the eve of their landing. Wonderful and inspiring thought!”

One night, a crowd of our soldier boys in France had gathered together in one of the army huts of the Christian Soldiers’ Association, at a rest camp behind the British lines. Tired and hungry after a long and trying spell in the trenches, many of the lads were seated about, enjoying a brimming cup of freshly made tea, while others had sought a secluded spot to read, or to write a letter to loved ones at home. Suddenly, amid the babel of voices there came three short, sharp blasts of the sentry’s whistle, the signal for “Lights out,” and almost immediately could be heard the distant whirr of approaching enemy aircraft. In a moment the hut was cleared—all but about a dozen Christian young fellows, who remained where they were. “I happened to be seated at the piano when we were plunged into darkness,” said my friend, when telling me the story, “and as I heard the bombs dropped in quick succession, carrying death on every hand, my fingers instinctively trembled over the keys, as I softly sang the prayer that rose to my lips:

‘Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on Thee:
Leave, oh leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me:
All my trust on Thee is stayed,
All my help from Thee I bring;
Cover my defenceless head
With the shadow of Thy wing.’

“At the first note, my companions joined in the singing of that verse from Charles Wesley’s immortal hymn, which long before that dreadful hour had proved a comfort and solace to countless thousands. We then knelt down and committed ourselves into the safe keeping of our Heavenly Father.”

Thus, through that dark hour, that little band of soldiers were wonderfully preserved from harm, while many of their less fortunate comrades who had taken refuge elsewhere were killed. Amongst them was the poor sentry nearby, who, but a few minutes before had sounded the alarm.

In the year 1894, the gallant Major Wilson, with a reconnoitring party of thirty-three troopers, were suddenly attacked in Matabeleland by a horde of three thousand natives, who surrounded them in a forest. They fought from early morning till after mid-day. Early in the engagement all their horses had been killed, and behind their dead bodies the brave fellows kept up a desperate fight for several hours, till their ammunition was exhausted and there was not one man left to stand or fire.

When nearly all were wounded or killed, the Induna, in relating the incident, says that Wilson’s party took off their hats, and sang something, the kind of song he had heard missionaries sing to the natives. Soon only one man was left, but the Matabele had such a dread of them, that even then they did not rush in and assegai them until the last man had fallen. And so impressed were Lobengula’s warriors with the bravey of the white men, that when at last they did scramble over the human barricade, they did not mutilate them in any way. It was of this incident that Mary Georges wrote:

“They sang—the white men sang—
Sang in the face of death,
And the forest echoes rang
With their triumphant breath.”

I have not been able to discover what it was that those gallant men sang in the hour of death—possibly it may never be known. We are told it was the kind of song the missionaries sang to the natives, and our thoughts instinctively hover round some of the grand old hymns, which have come to us from generation to generation: hymns whose melody has haunted the ear amid the storm and stress of life’s long battle.

Incidents associated with the lifting of the voice in sacred song in strange and tragic moments, whether in the field of battle, or on the high seas, have always a glamour of romance, which never fails to rivet the circumstance on the mind, in a peculiar and ineffaceable way. There are, however, in the quiet moments of everyday life, frequent incidents no less fascinating, and worthy of sympathetic note. A touching story was related to me quite recently. A young man suffering from cancer was about to undergo an operation in one of our large Scottish infirmaries. When the surgeon had made a careful examination he discovered that the disease was so deeply rooted that the only hope of saving the life of the patient was the removal of his tongue. The young man was already in the operating theatre, when the surgeon, in a tender and sympathetic way, explained to the sufferer that even though the operation should be successful, he would never again be able to speak, and he was asked whether there was anything he wished to say before the operation commenced. For a moment a shadow crossed the brow of the young Christian, at the thought that he would never again be able to testify in song or speech for the Master whom he loved. But soon the shadow passed, and a smile lit up his face. He sat up, and lifting up his voice he sang the hymn:

“There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.”

Ere the third verse was reached, not an eye of those who stood round was dry. How he sang; for his heart was in the song. Then came the last verse:

“Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave.”

The anaesthetic was administered, the operation performed, but, alas, the patient never regained consciousness; thus his last song on earth would be his first in heaven.