“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:17
We might begin our thoughts by saying what “Nearer, my God, to thee” is, and what it is not. “Bethany”, the tune to which we sing the hymn, is not the tune played at the sinking of the Titanic; but “Nearer, my God, to thee” is a hymn about finding God’s presence, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances may be.
If it is not the hymn tune played at the sinking of the Titanic, how do we know it is not?
Firstly, there is the eye witness evidence. 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 within days of an event that is still part of popular culture more than a century later.
Secondly, the tune “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. We might reasonably assume that those who placed Hartley’s memorial would have known what tune he would have played.
Whatever might have been shown in the 1958 film “A Night to Remember” or the 1997 film “Titanic,” and whatever stories might have told, and whatever sermons might have been preached about the music being played, it would seem it was almost certainly wrong to think that the band played the tune “Bethany” as the ship went down. Harold Bride remembers a dance tune being played, why would he have recalled them as playing anything different, particularly, why would he have recalled them playing a tune they would not have known?
Does it matter that the tune “Bethany” was not played as the Titanic sank? 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.
Having looked at what the hymn is not, we turn to what it is – it is about finding God’s presence, whatever and wherever the moment.
The hymn came from the pen of Sarah Flower Adams, a woman who was 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.”
If the hymn is about God with us wherever we are, whatever we are going through, the line “E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,”, captures a sense of God with us in desolate moments, those times when we are at the bottom, those times when we feel 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, grief is never the end, death is not the end of the story; if we are Christians, then we look to a world 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.
Sarah Adams’ words can be sung to the two other tunes, to “Horbury” and to “Propior Deo”, but it is Bethany, the tune which the band on the Titanic probably didn’t play, which gives the hymn a special power. The tune 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 store, 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, it is a song from the heart.