Eternal Father Strong to Save


THIS week’s choice links Britain and the United States because for both countries it is known as the Navy Hymn. The words vary slightly but the melody is the same, and so is the emotional significance.

It reminds us of the power of God’s creation and how our lives depend on His grace.

Let’s start with a performance by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and chorus over a video made in 2009 of the French destroyer Latouche-Tréville in a Force 11 storm. This arrangement was used in the 1995 film Crimson Tide.

(I tried and failed to find out how they did the filming from outside the ship, given that an aircraft or a boat would have been similarly battered.)

The words were written in 1860 by William Whiting (1825-1878), master of Winchester College Choristers’ School. He wrote a dozen or so hymns, though none of the others is remembered, and two volumes of poetry. Very little seems to be known about Whiting. Some accounts say he was a clergyman but others do not. Some say he wrote the hymn after narrowly surviving a storm while on board ship, others that he wrote it to give heart to a student who was terrified about undertaking a transatlantic voyage.

Some authorities believe Whiting was inspired by this section of Psalm 107:

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 wits’ 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. (vv 23-30, King James)

Others think that these verses from Matthew 8 are more likely:

And when [Jesus] was entered into a ship, his disciples followed him.

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! (vv 23-27, King James)

The hymn was published in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 with a tune written for it by John Bacchus Dykes, the English clergyman who composed many favourite hymn tunes including Nicaea (Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!) Horbury (Nearer, my God, to Thee) and Dominus Regit Me (The King of Love my Shepherd is). He called the melodyMelita, which is an old name for Malta, the reputed location of a shipwreck involving the Apostle Paul.

Whiting published a revised version of the hymn in 1869 and a third in 1874, and this is the one sung in Britain today.

1 Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

2 O Saviour, whose almighty word
The winds and waves submissive heard,
Who walked upon the foaming deep,
And calm amid the rage did sleep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea

3 O Holy Spirit, who did brood
Upon the waters dark and rude,
And bid their angry tumult cease,
And give for wild confusion peace;
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

4 O Trinity of love and power!
Our family shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoever we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

It is not known exactly when the hymn was adopted by the British and US armed forces. The first recorded instance by the US Navy was in 1879. It was in widespread use in the Royal Navy by 1890.

In 1940 the US Episcopal Church revised the hymn to add references to land and air travel, and in 1982 it was further revised to add space. The sea-only version is still sung as well.

Various verses have been composed for other branches of the US forces and other circumstances, such as the decommissioning of a ship, to be inserted between the second and third verses. There is a list on Wikipedia here.

The hymn was reputedly sung at the last divine service held on the doomed Titanic on April 14, 1912. She sank that night.

On August 9, 1941, Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt met aboard the British warship HMS Prince of Wales off Newfoundland to create the Atlantic Charter, in which the US pledged its support for Britain, a pivotal point in the war. During the meeting a religious service was held in which the crew of Prince of Wales participated with the crew of the American ship which had brought Roosevelt to the rendezvous, USS Augusta. The hymns were chosen by Churchill. One was Eternal Father Strong to Save, and it can be heard in this film clip, which also features Churchill’s daughter Mary.

Five months later Prince of Wales was sunk by Japanese bombers with the loss of 327 lives. About 1,300 survivors were picked up and taken to Singapore. Some were evacuated before the fall of Singapore. Of those who were not, some died in the fighting for Singapore in February 1942. Others were taken prisoner by the Japanese, many dying during forced labour on the Burma railway. There is a list of crew and what happened to them here.

The hymn was sung at FDR’s funeral in 1945, and it was played as the coffin of President John F Kennedy was carried up the steps of the Capitol on November 24, 1963, to lie in state before his funeral the next day.

What an ordeal for the stricken Mrs Kennedy, who had seen her husband assassinated only two days before.

In 1958 Benjamin Britten incorporated the hymn into his one-act opera about the Noah’s Ark story, Noye’s Fludde, which he intended for small-scale amateur performance, particularly by children. (I was lucky enough to take part in two stagings in the 1960s, one in Bromley Parish Church when I played a goat, and one in Canterbury Cathedral – I can’t remember what I was in that one. It is huge fun to participate in.) The animals having entered two by two, the Ark sets out and encounters a fierce storm. The passengers sing the first verse of the hymn and the audience join in the second and third as the storm subsides. Here is a clip of the relevant section, but I don’t know who the performers are.

The hymn was sung at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of D-Day at Arromanches, in the heart of the Normandy landing beaches.

Here is a lovely vintage performance by the Temple Quartette in 1929.

Here it is played by the Band of the Coldstream Guards.

Finally here is the US Naval Academy Glee Club Tribute to Pearl Harbor.

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