Home History of Hymns: "Eternal Father, Strong to Save"

History of Hymns: "Eternal Father, Strong to Save"

"Eternal Father, Strong to Save"
William Whiting
The Faith We Sing, No. 2191

William Whiting

Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm has bound the restless wave,
who bid the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we call to thee
for those in peril on the sea.

England is a seafaring nation, and the ways of the sea lie deep in the psyche of the British people.

England’s reputation as a naval power was sealed in 1588, when under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the English defeated the Spanish armada. During the 17th century, the riches of India were brought to England via the sea under the auspices of the British East India Company, established in 1601.

In the 18th century, Captain James Cook—a British explorer, navigator and cartographer—mapped Newfoundland and took three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, making the first European contact with Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. Cook was also the first sea captain to sail around New Zealand.

The great English missionary expansion of the 19th century was made possible by sea passage, while explorers, merchants and the navy built and sustained the British Empire by sea.

Given this history, it’s no wonder that the great naval hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” came from the pen of an Englishman, William Whiting (1825-1878).

Whiting, educated at the Winchester Training Institute, became the master of the Winchester College Choristers’ School in 1842. He held the position until his death.

Church musician Morgan Simmons notes: “Active in civic and church matters, Whiting was honorary secretary to the Winchester-Hursley branch of the English Church Union, an organization that supported the Catholic wing of the Church of England.”

The hymn first appeared in the famous Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861. Mr. Simmons notes that the “compilers of that influential collection, however, made rather extensive revisions to the hymn written by William Whiting the year before.”

Indeed there have been many modifications and additions to this hymn, known as the hymn for the Royal Navy as well as the United States Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. Branches of military service have added their own stanzas.

In 1961, a stanza by J.E. Volonte was written for astronauts:

Eternal Father, King of Birth,
who didst create the Heaven and Earth,
and bid the planets and the Sun
their own appointed orbits run;
O hear us when we seek Thy grace
for those who soar through outer space.

Whiting’s text is inseparable from the stirring tune MELITA, composed for the hymn in 1861 by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876). Dykes, an Anglican priest and church musician, composed several of the tunes we have in The UM Hymnal, including NICEA (“Holy, holy, holy”) and ST. AGNUS (“Jesus, the very thought of thee”). “Melita” is an archaic term for Malta, an ancient seafaring nation and the site of St. Paul’s shipwreck recorded in Acts 27-28.

Hymnologist J.R. Watson points out the Trinitarian structure of the stanzas and the echoing of Psalm 107:23-30, beginning with “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” (KJV).

This iconic hymn has often appeared in state ceremonies. Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford had the hymn sung at their funerals. It was performed during a 2002 memorial ceremony in Norfolk, Va., for those who had lost their lives in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

“Eternal Father, Strong to Save” has also appeared in several films, including The Right Stuff and The Perfect Storm.

For many people, especially those who have served in the armed forces, this hymn embodies memories of their service, their patriotism and their hopes.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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