Nearer My God To Thee
DESCRIPTION: "Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee, E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me, Still all my song shall be Nearer my God to thee." Whatever tribulations come, the singer hopes they will cause him/her to come closer to God
AUTHOR: Words: Sarah Fuller Flower Adams (1805-1848)
EARLIEST DATE: 1841 (Hymns and Anthems)
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Silber-FSWB, p. 353, "Nearer My God To Thee" (1 text)
Fuld-WFM, pp. 387-388, "Nearer, My God, To Thee"
ADDITIONAL: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), pp. 92-93, "Nearer, My God To Thee" (1 text, 1 tune)
John Julian, editor, _A Dictionary of Hymnology_, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), pp. 792-293, "Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!" (1 text, the original, plus many variations)
Climax Quartet, "Nearer, My God, to Thee" (Climax [Columbia] 518, 1900; Harvard 518 [as unidentified Vocal Quartet], 1903-1906)
Elliott Shaw, "Nearer My God to Thee" (Resona 75016, 1919)
Spencer, Young & Wheeler, "Nearer, My God, to Thee" (Edison 80074, n.d.)
Unidentified baritone, "Nearer, My God, to Thee" (Oxford 397, c. 1909)
Nero, My Dog, Has Fleas (Pankake-PHCFSB, p. 107)
Nearer My Job to Thee (Gibbs M. Smith, _Joe Hill_, 1969 (I use the 1984 Peregrine Smith Books edition), p. 253)
Nearer to Nature's God (by A. P. Knapp) (Albert P. Knapp, _Grange Songster_, 1915, p. 6)
NOTES [433 words]: The words of this song date from 1841 (or earlier; according to Reynolds, p. 151, "This was one of thirteen hymns Sarah F. Adams wrote in 1840 that were submitted to the Rev. William Johnson Fox for his Hymns and Anthems (1841), compiled for the use of his congregation at the Unitarian South Place Chapel, Finsbury, England), and proved popular enough that it soon acquired three different tunes.
The standard tune in America is by Lowell Mason (1792-1872), published in 1859; this often bears the name "Bethany." Reynolds, p. 151, reports that the irregular text was difficult for Mason, but an idea came to him on a sleepless night, and he produced the tune the next day. The tune most often used in the Church of England is "Horbury," said by Johnson to be by John Dykes. British Methodists tend to use the tune "Propior Deo" by Sir Arthur Sullivan. If that weren't confusing enough, I have encountered at least one other attempt by a modern composer to abuse the text.
It isn't just the tunes that get hacked at. Julian, p. 792, reports, "The use of this hymn, generally with very slight alterations, but often with the omission of the last stanza, is very considerable in all English-speaking countries. It has also been translated into many European and other languages.
"This hymn is a curious illustration of the colouring which is given to a hymn by the antecedents of its author.... With Mrs. Adams, being an Unitarian, [the text is not as respectfully treated], not withstanding the redeeming lines 'E'en though it be a Cross That raiseth me" in the opening stanza." Julian goes on to list five different major alterations by later writers.
I do not believe that either the original or any of the results qualify as true folk songs, but the piece is widespread enough that I chose to include it here.
This seems to be the Official Song of People Dying Under Unfortunate Circumstances in the Absence of Corroborating Witnesses. The story that it was played as the Titanic went down is simply false (a story spread by one Mrs. A. A. Dick; see Wade, pp. 61-62) -- the disproof being that the passengers who claimed they heard the song were British and American both despite the fact that the two nations used different tunes (Lord, p. 110). Johnson reports that William McKinley's doctor claimed these were the dying president's last words. In the aftermath of the Johnstown Flood, there were newspaper reports of families singing the song in harmony as they were washed away in the flood (McCullough, p. 221).
Interesting how none of these claims are ever capable of verification. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.3
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- Lord: Walter Lord, The Night Lives On (1987; I use the Avon paperback edition)
- McCullough: David G. McCullough, The Johnstown Flood, Simon and Schuster, 1968
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
- Wade: Wyn Craig Wade, The Titanic: End of a Dream, revised edition, Penguin, 1986
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