Nearer, My God, to Thee

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, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

-- From "Nearer, My God, to Thee"

The sinking of the Titanic did not lack musical accompaniment, although there were strong disagreements about what was actually played when the ship went down. Some survivors distinctly remembered the Titanic’s band playing the 19th-century hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as its final number, while others insisted it was a popular waltz of the day called "Songe d'Automne." The various feature films on the Titanic mostly went with the hymn, which had more dramatic impact. Since none of the musicians survived the disaster, we will never know. The band’s leader had once expressed the wish that “Nearer, My God, to Thee” would be played at his funeral. If, in fact, the hymn was the band’s final number, you could say that his wish was granted, although he probably never anticipated a burial at sea with a tune he conducted himself.

The words to ”Nearer, my God, to Thee” were written in 1841 by an English actress-turned-poet named Sarah Flower Adams, who had earned praise for her performance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth before ill health forced her to retire from the stage. Her sister, Eliza Flower, composed the music. Adams’ pastor had commissioned the hymn to accompany his sermon on the “Jacob’s Ladder” narrative in the Old Testament Book of Genesis. The original tune gave way to more than half a dozen others in Britain and the U.S. It is unlikely that English musicians on board the Titanic would have played the most popular American version heard in the 1997 film.

The hymn’s theme could not have been more explicitly stated, inasmuch as the phrase “nearer, my God to thee” or “nearer to thee” was repeated a dozen times in its five stanzas (a sixth was added later by another lyricist). The hymn was a musical retelling of the Genesis story in which the patriarch Jacob dreamed of angels ascending and descending on a ladder to heaven. Jacob was a rather unsavory character who tricked his blind father into bestowing a blessing on him rather than his slightly older twin brother Esau. Having robbed Esau of his birthright, Jacob then fled to Haran (in present-day Turkey) to escape his brother’s wrath. Stopping for the night along the way, he dreamed of the ladder and the Lord standing next to him, promising that his offspring would be as numerous as the dust of the earth, and that the whole world would be blessed because of him.

For Jacob, his vision of God proved to be highly unsettling. Like most of us, he thought of God as being far away, not nearer – in this case, altogether too close for comfort, standing right next to him. When he awoke, he was terrified. It did not matter that he had dreamed the whole thing. He cried, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it!" The stone on which he rested his head in the night became an altar, and he poured oil on it for sacrifice. "How awesome is this place!” he said. “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." The place was renamed Bethel, meaning “house of God,” and it became a center of worship for the Israelites before the temple was built in Jerusalem.

Nearer and farther are relative terms, and they beg the question, “Nearer and farther in relation to what?” For the doomed passengers on the Titanic, the icy waters of the North Atlantic would bring them nearer to God, because they were about to leave this life for what they hoped would be a better place. For the patriarch Jacob, the place where he stopped to spend the night turned out to be a better place, the house of God and the gate of heaven. St. Paul once told the Athenians there was no point in worshipping in their temples, since the Lord of heaven and earth did not live in shrines made by human hands. He explained, “For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’” quoting the Greek poet Aratus. If God is indeed the ground of our being, there is no nearer or farther; there is only right here.

Genesis 28:11-19
Acts 17:22-28

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