Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2008, Sunday 15th June
“Nearer, my God, to thee”, the music at the sinking of the Titanic—but was it?
On 28th April 1912, Harold Bride, radio operator on the Titanic was interviewed in the New York Times, Bride became known for his eye for detail and his accurate recall of events. He describes the final music played on the sinking ship.
The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn”. How they ever did it, I cannot imagine”.
“Autumn” was a popular dance tune at the time, the sort of tune a ship’s band might have played, and there is no reason why Harold Bride would not have reported things as he remembered them, particularly when the interview was so close to the event.
Furthermore, “Bethany”, the tune to which “Nearer, my God, to thee” is most popular, would not have been known to Wallace Hartley, the band leader. Hartley was an English Methodist and would have known a tune called “Horbury” by John Bacchus Dykes and “Propior Deo” (Nearer to God) by Sir Arthur Sullivan. Methodists preferred “Propior Deo” and the opening notes of the tune appear on Hartley’s memorial stone at Colne in Lancashire.
So, with apologies to fans of the 1997 film, it would seem it was almost certainly wrong in showing the band playing the tune “Bethany” as the ship went down. Harold Bride remembers a dance tune and had they decided upon a hymn tune, it would have been one that Hartley knew.
Does it matter? Not at all.
The fact that the hymn, and a particular tune, became associated in people’s minds with the terrible tragedy of the Titanic, is testimony to the power of the words and the music to bring people closer to God in times of tragedy and sadness.
The hymn came from the pen of Sarah Flower Adams, a woman well-known as an actor and writer. Sarah Flower was born into a very radical English home in 1805. Her father was a writer and editor of radical journals and once went to prison for his criticism of a bishop. Independence of mind was obviously passed on to his daughter who married William Adams on the understanding that she would have to do “no housekeeping.” William Adams was an engineer and radical writer and he and Sarah were married in 1834. They lived in Essex until Sarah’s early death from tuberculosis in 1848, she was 43.
Sarah Adams’ best-known literary work was a drama celebrating Christian martyrs; she had an eye for the dramatic, for words that reached into the depths of the emotions, and she demonstrates that skill in the writing of “Nearer, my God, to thee.” It is a hymn that is about the depths of human experience.
“E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me”, captures a sense of desolation, of being at the bottom, of being alone and in despair. Sarah Adams was to know such experiences, nursing her sister through TB and then dying from it herself twenty months later. It takes faith to believe that in such experiences we are drawn closer to God.
Sarah Adams uses the story of Jacob being alone on a journey as her inspiration. In Genesis Chapter 28, he is far from home and darkness has fallen and he finds a place to sleep among the rocks, resting his head on a stone. It’s as he sleeps there that he has a vision of a stairway to heaven and angels going up and down the stairway.
When Jacob wakes up in the morning, he says, “How awesome is this place!” and he sets up the stone on which he has slept and calls it “Bethel”, the “House of God”.
Jacob builds Bethel after having an inspiring vision. Sarah Adams believed we were to go even further, it is not only in the inspiring moments that we are to find God, it is also in the grief-filled moments, “out of my stony griefs
Bethel I’ll raise; so by my woes to be nearer, my God to thee”.
In some hymnbooks, the hymn used to finish there: accepting grief as it was and seeking God in our sadness, but if we are Christians, we look beyond the sadness. “Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I fly”, says Sarah Adams; in the end life sometimes only makes sense in God’s presence.
Bethany, the tune which the Band on theTitanic probably didn’t play, but the tune to which we sing “Nearer, my God, to thee”, was written by Lowell Mason, an American who came from a much humbler background than Sarah Adams. He worked his way up, starting out in a dry goods sore, and then working in a bank, during which time he had a keen interest in amateur music. His musical studies led him to appointment as a church organist and director of music and he went on to become an important figure in 19th Century American music. He wrote some 1600 hymns, using as his inspiration European classical music. Born thirteen years before Sarah Adams, Mason lived twenty-four years after her death, a life which ended peacefully on his estate at Orange, New Jersey in 1872.
Adams’ words and Mason’s music combine to produce a hymn which ranks among many people’s favourites. Sometimes, when all around is blackness, our only prayer can be “Nearer, my God, to thee”. It is the simplest of prayers, but the most profound of prayers, and, as countless people have found, it is a prayer that gets us through.