Was "Nearer, My God, To Thee" the Titanic's Swansong?
Editor's Note: This is an installment in the series called Behind the Hymns. Dr. Roger D. Duke explores the history behind Christianity's most treasured hymns. Dr. Roger D. Duke serves as the Scholar-in-Residence at Stage & Story.
Psalm 73: 28 “But it is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord God, that I may declare all thy works” (KJV).
“Nearer, My God, to Thee” is considered by some hymnologists “to be the finest hymn ever written by any woman hymnwriter.”  The poem’s lyrics profess the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”  so common to individuals of the 19th Century. In fact, the title as refrain seems redundant when read or sung: “If one sings all five stanzas, the singer will voice the phrase ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ or ‘nearer to thee’ 16 times.” 
The author, Sarah Flower Adams, was born in the small hamlet of Harlow, England February 22, 1805. She had to say “goodbye” quite often, and never did quite embrace the thought of being alone. Her mom died when she was only five. At the early age of thirty-two, while playing Lady Macbeth in London’s Richmond Theater, she was forced to bid her love of the theater farewell. She had devoted herself to acting but had to give it up because of failing health. Adams thought she might have to even bid her sister adieu because she too was frail and sickly. As thoughts of loneliness compounded, Adams began to lose her faith. “Why did God seem so far away?” she questioned?  She would later die early at the youthful age of forty-three.
There was a time in 1841 when The Rev. William Johnson Fox paid Adams a pastoral call. He was the minister of London’s South Place Unitarian Church.  He shared a pastoral frustration with her; it was difficult for him to find a hymn that captured the theme of his next Sunday’s sermon. It was the account of “Jacob at Bethel in Genesis 28: 20-22.”  Sister Elisa exhorted her enthusiastically, “‘Sarah, now there is an excellent idea for a new hymn. . . . Why don’t you write your own hymn about Jacob’s dream?’”  So, the poem’s lyrics sprang from her understanding of Jacob’s night vision in the desert while fleeing home and brother Esau. “Upon awakening from his dream and seeing the ascending and descending angels, Jacob called the place ‘Bethel’— ‘The House of God.’”  Sarah was moved by the Bible account: “For the rest of the week she poured over the passage visualizing Jacob’s sleeping with a stone for his pillow as he dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven.”  That next Sunday the congregation sang her “Nearer, My God, to Thee” for the first time. 
Adams spent the greater part of her life attending a Unitarian congregation. Orthodox theologians and hymnist critiqued her hymn because it did not reference the Person and Work of Christ. Her long membership as a Unitarian may account for this seeming lack of an evangelical fervor. However, “the hymn is found in nearly every published hymnal and has won its way into the hearts of believers around the world with its many translations into other languages.”  It is worth noting, that in her later writings there is evidence that she had an evangelical conversion experience. She also “became associated with a congregation of Baptist believers in London.” 
Please consider various incidents that have been associated with “Nearer, My God, to Thee”:
In 1871 three eminent theologians . . . were traveling in Palestine when they heard the strains of this hymn being sung. . .. [T]o their amazement, fifty Syrian students standing under some trees in a circle, singing in the Arabic language “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Professor Hitchcock . . . said that the singing of the Christian hymn by Syrian youths moved him to tears and affected him more than any singing he had ever heard before. 
During the Johnstown City Flood of May 21, 1889, a railroad train rushed into the swirling waters. One car was turned on end, and in it was imprisoned, beyond hope of rescue, a woman on her way to be a missionary in the far East. The young lady spoke calmly to the awe-stricken multitude gazing helplessly at the tragedy. Then she prayed and finally sang the hymn “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” in which she was ushered into the presence of the God she loved and desired to serve. 
In the United States . . . The hymn is associated with two assassinated presidents. The hymn was played as President James Garfield’s body was interred in 1881. William McKinley was said to have quoted the hymn just before his assassination in 1901. 
And those around McKinley as he lay dying “said that he was heard to whisper its word as he drew his last breath.”
Finally, there are the different accounts that continue to swirl around that fateful voyage of that “Unsinkable” luxury liner: “The Titanic, as it plunged into the icy waters of the Atlantic in 1912, sending 1500 people into eternity while the ship’s band played the strains of this hymn.” But “In the United States, the text is sung almost exclusively to the tune BETHANY (1859) by music educator and church musician Lowell Mason.”  Because of this, “The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM [United Methodist] Hymnal, notes, ‘The tune was unlikely to have been played by English musicians in the ship’s band since in Britain this text has never been associated with Mason’s tune.’”  We may never know the truth!
But there is one lasting Gospel truth in this great hymn. Many who have found themselves in crisis have sung it and quoted it as a prayer as they came “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” The hymn Sarah Flower Adams penned could be her personal epitaph: “In her own life, she learned that each step we take—even the difficult and painful farewells—only draw us nearer to God.” 
Now you know the story Behind the Hymn.
Make sure you | read | all the articles in the Behind the Hymns series.
 Kenneth W. Osbeck, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982), 169.
 Jude 1: 3.
 [C. Michael] Hawn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in History of Hymns series of the Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church, accessed 2 August 2021, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-famed-hymn-expresses-writers-longing-for-heaven.
 Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, eds., “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in The One Year Book of Hymns: 365 Devotional Readings Based on Great Hymns of the Faith (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishing, 1995), September 20.
 Osbeck, 169.
 Roberts J. Morgan, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in Then Sings My Soul: 150 Christmas, Easter, and All-Time Favorite Hymn Stories (Nashville: W Publishing Group of Thomas Nelson, 2010), 177.
 Quoted in Osbeck, 170.
 Osbeck, 170.
 Morgan, 177.
 Osbeck, 170.
 Osbeck, 171.
 [C. Michael] Hawn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
 Osbeck, 171.
 [C. Michael] Hawn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
 Carlton Young, quoted in [C. Michael] Hawn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”
 William J. Petersen and Ardythe Peterson, “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” in The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns and Praise Songs (Carol Stream, IL, Tyndale House Publishing, 2006), 580.
Dr. Roger D. Duke is an advisory board member and the scholar-in-residence at Stage & Story. Dr. Duke is an ordained Baptist minister and has taught at the college and graduate school levels for over 20 years. Dr. Duke holds graduate degrees from The University of the South’s School of Theology at Sewanee, TN; The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Harding University’s Graduate School of Religion. He has written or contributed to more than ten volumes (including works on John Bunyan) with the latest volume scheduled to be released in 2018. Visit his website at www.invertedchristian.com. His published work can be found on his website and his Amazon Author's Page. He has been happily married to Linda Young Duke for nearly 44 years. They have three adult children and four robust grandsons.