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  • Writer's pictureChurch Muse

Nearer My God, to Thee - The RooHorn Ensemble, 2017

As a little girl, the earliest thing I remember hearing about the hymn, “Nearer My God, to Thee” was that it was played by the musicians on the Titanic as it sank. However, the tune that most of us associate with the hymn was written several years later than the text, and not the tune those musicians played.

“Nearer My God, to Thee” was written in 1841 by Sarah Flowers Adams, a British actress who had turned to hymn and poetry writing when she had to give up her performing career due to health reasons. Her pastor was putting together a new hymnal and asked her and her sister, a talented musician and composer, to write some hymns for it. He specifically asked for one on Genesis 28:11-19, known as the story of “Jacob’s Dream,” or “Jacob’s Ladder.” The text for “Nearer My God, to Thee” is based on the dream that Jacob had in the desert when he was running away from home after Essau, his brother, had threatened to kill him. Using a rock for a pillow he laid down in the wilderness and dreamt angels ascending and descending on a heavenly ladder.

It appears that Sarah’s sister’s tune for the hymn is long forgotten; the tune that most of us know is called “Bethany” and was written specifically for the text by Lowell Mason in 1856. As far as the Titanic story goes, the musicians most likely played the tune, "Propior Deo,” which was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan (of the famed Gilbert and Sullivan operetta team) and was most often sung in the Methodist church. Walter Hartley, the band leader on the Titanic, was a Methodist, and had shared with his family that he wanted “Nearer My God to Thee” to be sung at his funeral. All in all, there are five tunes linked to this hymn, all by different composers.

The tune used for the instrumental version here is “Bethany.” It was arranged for french horn choir by our friend, J.D. Shaw. This performance by my husband Marty’s horn students (he’s conducting) was part of the UMKC Conservatory’s 2017 “Crescendo” gala concert at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in beautiful Helzberg Hall.

There are six verses to the hymn, five by the original author, and a sixth by Edward Henry Bickersteth, who was a bishop in the Church of England in the 19th century. I feel that Sarah’s 3rd verse, and the bishop’s added verse are most apropos for our present plight.

We can’t be near each other right now, but there is no reason we can’t, or shouldn’t, be nearer to God. Stay home, stay safe, stay close to God!

3. There let the way appear steps unto heav'n;

All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv'n;

Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

6. There in my Father's home, safe and at rest,

There in my Saviour's love, perfectly blest;

Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee,

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

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