Saturday, November 10, 2012

Eternal Father, Strong to Save (Navy Hymn)

And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him! ~ Matt. 8:24-27

Sunday, November 11, is Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Great Britain and the Commonwealth (click here for my 2011 post on observance of this day). Established in the 1920s to commemorate the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended World War I, Veterans Day has since been re-christened in the United States as an occasion to remember and honor all men and women who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States, from Revolutionary times to the present. Given how many of them made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve freedom for us all, and how close so many service members live to the edge of mortality, day in and out, the singing of hymns in their remembrance is most fitting.

John W. Fleming
Veterans Day is special to me, in large part, because my father (at left, as a young man) is a veteran of the United States Navy (and, while he served as a Hospital Corpsman with occupation forces in 1950s Japan, of the United States Marine Corps).  He is very proud of his service, and so is everyone in our family! In his honor, I'd like to feature the hymn most closely associated with the Navy and sailors in general, Eternal Father, Strong to Save.

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, the work known to United States Navy men and women as the "Navy Hymn" is a musical benediction long having a special appeal to seafarers, particularly in the American Navy and the Royal Navies of the British Commonwealth. The original text was written as a poem by a schoolmaster and clergyman of the Church of England, the Rev. William Whiting (1825-1878). He resided on the English coast near the sea and at the age of 35 survived a furious storm while on a voyage in the Mediterranean. Later, a student came to Whiting and confided to him an overwhelming fear of the ocean, which he had to cross in order to travel to America. Whiting told him of his experiences on the ocean, and assured him: "Before you depart, I will give you something to anchor your faith."

William Whiting
The compilers of Hymns Ancient and Modern revised the text when they included it in their first edition in 1861 to the form in which it is now known. Whiting himself rewrote the entire hymn in 1869, and it is this version which is found in most hymnals. Also in 1861, the text was adapted to music by another English clergyman, the Rev. John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), who originally wrote the music as "Melita," an ancient name for the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the Apostle Paul was supposedly shipwrecked. Rev. Dykes composed the music to many other well-known hymns, including Lead, Kindly Light; Holy, Holy, Holy; Jesus, Lover of My Soul; and Nearer, My God to Thee.
John B. Dykes

Whiting's text presents us with an eloquent expression of man's frailty before God and the power of His Creation, and with a moving prayer for His continued mercy and loving protection. Dykes' music is like the sea itself, rising and falling; brooding, ascending, and finally coming to rest. No wonder it has been the sailor's favorite for more than 150 years!
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!

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!   

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!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our brethren 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.

Eternal Father, Strong to Save has had an interesting history since its first publication. In 1879 Lt. Comdr. Charles Jackson Train, an 1865 graduate of the United States Naval Academy who went on to become a Rear Admiral, was stationed at the Academy in charge of the Midshipman Choir. In that year Train inaugurated the tradition, still observed, of concluding each Sunday's Divine Services at the Academy with the singing of the first verse of this hymn.

Winston Churchill requested the singing of Eternal Father, Strong to Save at a church service aboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales during his 1941 conference with President Franklin D. Roosevelt for creation of the Atlantic Charter. Ironically, this was also the last hymn sung during the Sunday, April 14, 1912 church service aboard the RMS Titanic just hours before it sank. It was sung at the funeral of President Roosevelt (who had previously served as Secretary of the Navy); played by the Navy Band at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, a World War II PT-boat commander; sung at the funeral of former President Richard Nixon; and played by the Navy and Coast Guard Bands during the funeral of the late President Ronald Reagan. The hymn was performed by the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters   at the funeral of President Gerald R. Ford, who had served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific Theater. This was also the final hymn sung at the 2011 funeral in Australia of Claude Choules, the last living seaman and combat veteran of World War I.

Eternal Father, Strong to Save, and variants of it for every branch of service from submariners, Marines, Seabees, and airmen to Coast Guardsmen, nurses, astronauts, and even Arctic explorers, has been performed in such popular films as Crimson Tide, The Right Stuff, The Perfect Storm, and Titanic.

The video below features a congregation singing Eternal Father, Strong to Save with moving scenes of seamen, ships, crashing waves, and cathedral windows memorializing the sea service:

This presentation is by the Naval Academy Men's Glee Club in a 2008 visit to San Antonio, Texas:

There are many times in life when we feel utterly helpless and in peril of our lives, at the mercy of dark, raging forces we cannot stem. We call upon God to save us, as He is the only One with power and love enough to move all Creation to protect us from destruction. Give joyful thanks and praise always that we can trust always in the arms of such a faithful Lord!

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit's end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so he bringeth them unto their desired haven. ~ Psalm 107:23-30


  1. What a perfect post for Remembrance/Veterans Day; one of the most moving hymns ever written. I'd no idea the tune was composed by the same man who gave us 'Nearer My God To Thee'! Both videos give one a lump in the throat--in particular the first one with photos of serving Navy officers and men (and several ships that were lost). Thank you for this post!!

  2. My wife was a Gulf War 1 Navy Vet (eh shipmate) She enjoys singing Eternal Father, but is told she needs it in D flat. Any shipmate who has is D flat is encouraged to contact Sister Lillian May God bless you.
    Husband of Lillian

  3. Picking a veterinarian is something individuals ordinarily ignore for another feline or pooch, however this is vital for the vets in bundaberg pet's enthusiastic prosperity and general wellbeing.

  4. The original story of the Genesis of the hymn, is profoundly dear to me. The ship, struck by a severe storm, was tossed mercilessly, preventing any rest for the passengers or any real effectiveness for the crew.
    Presently, she began to settle, and it was discovered that she was taking on water. The Reverend Mr Whiting, in quest of information, discovered the crew frantically working the brace bars of the hand pump. They could not stanch the influx, nor barely stay ahead of it. In so tumultuous a sea, if the ship could not live, the few boats would have no chance.
    "Perhaps we ought to pray," the minister declared.
    "You pray, we'll PUMP!"a seaman retorted. So Mr Biles called earnestly upon the Lord, and presently, the hold began to empty of water. At length, the storm subsided, and they made way from mid-ocean to a safe port, wherein they immediately were put into drydock, to find the source of the original leak.
    Now, seams between ship's planks were sealed by tarred rope wedged in between the timbers. The inspector found a two-foot gap, where the oakum had been dislodged, somewhere in mid-ocean. In its place, so far from the shore where it grows, a length of seaweed had found this tiny gap in this tiny ship, and given God's answer to His servant's prayer for mercy.
    The hymn was a tribute to the Holy One Who saved them then and saves us for all time. Amen!