STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

NEARER, MY GOD, TO THEE

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 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,
   Nearer to Thee!
2 Though like the wanderer,
   The sun gone down,
Darkness be over me,
   My rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
   Nearer to Thee!
3 There let the way appear,
   Steps unto heaven:
All that Thou send’st to me
   In mercy given:
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
   Nearer to Thee!
4 Then, with my waking thoughts
   Bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs
   Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
   Nearer to Thee!
5 Or if on joyful wing
   Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot,
   Upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
   Nearer to Thee!

Sarah Flower Adams, 1841

NOTE– The text is taken from W. J. Fox’s Hymns and Anthems; with a single change, referred to under “Some Points for Discussion.”

THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

In the year 1820 there came to Dalston, then a rural suburb of London, a little family composed of Benjamin Flower, a widower, and his two daughters, the younger of whom was afterward to write this hymn.

Something of a career lay behind Mr. Flower, then an elderly man. Unsuccessful in business speculations as a young man, he had become a traveling salesman on the continent. There he became an adherent of the French Republic, and in 1792 published a book on the French Constitution which was really an attack on that of England. He was selected to edit The Cambridge Intelligencer, an influential weekly of radical principles. Accused of libelling the Bishop of Llandaff, whose political conduct he had censured, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment in Newgate with a fine of £1oo. He was visited in prison by Miss Eliza Gould, a lady who is said to have suffered for her own liberal principles, and shortly after his release he married her. They settled at Harlow in Essex, where Mr. Flower became a printer and where Mrs. Flower died in 1810. These facts of their father’s career help us to understand the atmosphere in which the motherless girls grew up.

Both daughters had inherited their mother’s delicate constitution, but both were talented to an unusual degree, and they attracted to the Dalston home many friends who afterward became distinguished. Among these were Harriet Martineau and Robert Browning, “the boy poet,” as Eliza Flower calls him in her letters, who came often to discuss religious difficulties with her sister Sarah. Eliza, the elder, was a skillful musician with a remarkable gift for musical composition. Sarah, the younger of the sisters, was also musical, and possessed of a rich contralto voice, and was much given to singing songs in costume, with appropriate dramatic action. The elder sister always furnished the accompaniment, and sometimes the musical settings of these songs, in their domestic entertainments.

Sarah Flower was born at the Harlow home on February 22nd, 1805. She had the dramatic instinct, and from childhood cherished the ambition of adopting the stage as a profession. She idealized the stage as an ally of the pulpit, and held that the life of an actress should be as high and noble as the great thoughts and actions she was called upon to express. In 1829 her father died, and in 1834 Sarah Flower was married to John Brydges Adams, a civil engineer and an ingenious inventor in the early days of railroad building. Her husband encouraged her dramatic ambition, and in 1837 she made her first public appearance, at the Richmond Theatre, as “ Lady Macbeth.” Her success was great enough to gain for her an engagement at the Bath Theatre. But her health gave away under the strain of public performances, and she suffered a siege of illness at Bath which at once put an end to all hope of a dramatic career.

Mrs. Adams determined to devote herself to literary work, for she had in addition a considerable literary gift. She wrote much for the Monthly Repository, but her most ambitious effort was “Vivia Perpetua – a Dramatic Poem,” published in 1841. It tells the story of a young mother who suffered a martyr’s death at Carthage, A. D. 203, for her faith in Christ. There is but little doubt that her own moral earnestness and intense feelings are set forth in the character of Vivia. The poem is often eloquent, but as a drama not well constructed, and it has taken no permanent place in literature. “The Royal Progress,” a long poem in ballad meter, has met a like fate. Mrs. Adams’s high ideals and ambitions led her to undertake tasks beyond her powers. Though ambitious to lead in the moral uplifting of the stage, even the ordinary routine of an actress’s life was beyond her physical powers. And so her attempt to revive the poetical drama was quite as far beyond her intellectual powers. She had, however, a real gift for lyrical poetry. By her lyrics she retains a modest place in literature, and is chiefly remembered as the author of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Mrs. Adams is described by her friend, Mrs. Bridell Fox, as ”“tall and singularly beautiful, with noble and “regular features; in manner gay and impulsive, her conversation witty and sparkling.” The portrait here given is a facsimile of a slight sketch believed to have been made by Miss Margaret Gillies in 1834. Mrs. Adams seems to have made a deep impression upon the minds of those who knew her. They speak enthusiastically of her personal charm, and of her purity and high- mindedness. In his “Blue-Stocking Revels,” the poet Leigh Hunt also pays tribute to her as “Mrs. Adams, rare mistress of thought and of tears.”

Both of the sisters died while still in early life, and within less than two years of each other. Eliza died of consumption in December, 1846, and Sarah on August 14th, 1848; the death of the younger sister was probably hastened by the cares and anxiety occasioned by the long illness of the elder. At the funerals of both, hymns by Mrs. Adams were sung to music composed for them by her sister. One cannot avoid a feeling of regret that some foretaste of her usefulness and fame did not come to brighten the failing days of the author of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Sarah Flower Adams
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THE STORY OF THE HYMN

After the death of Mr. Flower, his daughters removed to Upper Clapton, a suburb of London, and there connected themselves with the religious society to which the gifted William Johnson Fox ministered, in South Place Chapel, Finsbury. Mr. Fox occupied an independent ecclesiastical position, though generally classed as a Unitarian. For the use of the congregation he prepared a collection of Hymns and Anthems, published in 1840 and 1841, in two parts. At his request Mrs. Adams wrote for the book thirteen original hymns and some translations. One of the hymns was “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and it first appeared in the second part of the book. Like most of Mrs. Adams’s hymns it was set to music by her sister, and was often heard in the services of South Place Chapel.

“How she composed her hymns,” says Mrs. Bridell Fox, “can hardly be stated. She certainly never had any idea of composing them. They were the spontaneous expression of some strong impulse of feeling of the moment; she was essentially a creature of impulse. Her translations would, of course, be an exception; also, perhaps, when she was writing words for music already in use in the chapel.”

“Nearer, My God, to Thee” was not long in finding its way across the ocean. While Mr. Fox was compiling his hymn book for his London congregation, an American clergyman, somewhat like him in his religious views, the Rev. James Freeman Clarke, was organizing a new congregation in Boston as the Church of the Disciples. (It is the church described as the Church of the Galileans in Dr. Holmes’s Professor at the Breakfast Table.) Mr. Clarke printed a new hymn book for it in 1844, including a number of hymns from Mr. Fox’s book, a copy of which had been given him by his friend Mr. Bakewell of Pittsburgh. Among these was “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and in 1846 Mr. Longfellow put the hymn into his Book of Hymns. It was some time, however, before it made its way into the orthodox Congregational churches. Henry Ward Beecher, who was never afraid of novelty, included it in the Plymouth Collection in 1855. But what started the hymn on its free course in America was the tune “Bethany,” which Lowell Mason wrote for it and published in 1856. And when the hymn, set to this taking tune, appeared in 1859 in the wonderfully successful Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book of the professors at Andover Seminary, its general use became assured. By 1866 it had found its way into the authorized hymnal of the Presbyterian Church.

An Autograph Verse
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SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) Although so popular with congregations, this hymn has had rather hard treatment at the hands of editors of hymn books. In a number of cases the editor has inserted a new stanza, composed by himself. Bishop How rewrote the entire hymn for the 1864 edition of his Psalms and Hymns. The object of these changes was to introduce the name and work of Christ, “to make the hymn more distinctly Christian.” Is there a real lack in the hymn, needing to be supplied in some such way? Or is it likely that the Unitarian origin of the hymn suggested the need of change?

(2) The text of the hymn has also suffered much from alteration, and is very rarely printed as Mrs. Adams wrote it. In the Protestant Episcopal Hymnal, for instance, “the wanderer ” of verse two becomes “a wanderer,” and the following line reads, “Weary and lone.” The “Bethel,” of verse four, becomes “altars.” Is not the Bible story on which the hymn is based completely hidden by these changes? In The Hymnal only one word differs from what Mrs. Adams wrote. In the fifth line she wrote “would be” instead of “shall be.” The editor thought “would be” better, because less boastful and self-confident, but he feared to make confusion by changing what everybody sings from memory. The editor of the new Presbyterian hymnal for Scotland was braver, and prints Mrs. Adams’s text, here, as in every other particular.

(3) Perhaps no hymn is sung more thoughtlessly than this, What is the meaning of “E’en though it be a cross That raiseth me”? Write out the leading thought of the hymn in plain prose. Is it not singular that a hymn expressing desire to draw nearer to God by the way of suffering should be so often declared their favorite hymn by persons apparently the most self-indulgent?

(4) The literary merits of the hymn are much debated. One may admit certain faults. Indeed, he owes it to himself to recognize that “stony griefs” is a bad metaphor, and that, if a verse is to be omitted in singing, the last verse is not ill-adapted to such a purpose. But notice, on the other hand, the perfect “singableness” of the hymn. And singableness is the first merit of a lyric. Note, also – who has not noted? – the haunting beauty of the refrain, and the happy introduction of the lonely figure of Jacob. Is it not fair to say that, even from a literary point of view, the merits of the hymn outweigh its defects?

(5) It is likely that this hymn will always be associated with the tragic death and the obsequies of President McKinley. The last words of the President, as reported by the attendant physician (Dr. M. D. Mann), were: “‘Nearer, my God, to Thee, E’en though it be a cross,’ has been my constant prayer.” It is not unnatural that the grieved heart of the American people was deeply touched by such allusion under such circumstances. The hymn was sung in hundreds of churches over the country on the Sunday following, and in memorial gatherings of every sort. One heard the familiar strains of the tune from strong-lunged bands of itinerant musicians in city streets, the street children and their elders often gathering about the performers, and perhaps joining in the hymn. On the day of the burial at Canton, Thursday, September 19th, 1901, all traffic in the cities stopped, by previous arrangement, at half past three o’clock, and for five minutes there was silence. People in the trolley cars rose and those in the streets bared their heads and stood, often joining in singing the words of the hymn. In Union and Madison Squares, New York City, immense throngs had assembled, and after the period of silence, bands played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and then “Lead, Kindly Light,” a favorite hymn of the dead President, during which every head in the throng remained uncovered. The whole occasion was remarkable as a demonstration of popular feeling in which reverence seemed to have a share. Has any other hymn ever received such popular recognition?