Home History of Hymns: "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me"

History of Hymns: "Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me"

"Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me"
by Edward Hopper
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 509

C. Michael Hawn

Jesus, Savior, pilot me
over life’s tempestuous sea;
unknown waves before me roll,
hiding rock and treacherous shoal.
Chart and compass came from thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

The sea is a favorite image of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hymn writers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling by ship, although an adventure, was also potentially a long and arduous journey fraught with danger, especially storms and unseen rocks. Even a short list of hymns that incorporate the sea and storm metaphor is impressive:

“Jesus, lover of my soul” (1740) by Charles Wesley (The United Methodist Hymnal, 479):

. . . while the nearer waters roll,
while the tempest still is high;
hide me, O my Savior, hide,
till the storm of life is past. . .

(Stanza one)

“When peace, like a river” (1873) by Horatio Gates Spafford (The United Methodist Hymnal, 377):

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll. . ..
(Stanza one)

God is often depicted as one who has control over the storms:
“God moves in a mysterious way” (1774) by William Cowper:

God moves in a mysterious way,
his wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps in the sea
and rides upon the storm.
(Stanza one)

“O worship the King” (1833) by Robert Grant (The United Methodist Hymnal, 73):

His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.
(Stanza two)

Of course, the United States Navy hymn is a case in point.
“Eternal Father, strong to save” (1860) by William Whiting:

Eternal Father, strong to save,
whose arm doth bind the restless wave,
who bids the mighty ocean deep
its own appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to thee
for those in peril on the sea.
(Stanza one)

For those with further interest in this theme, refer to an address by John Townley, www.astrococktail.com/hymnody.html.

“Jesus, Savior, pilot me” falls in a long and rich tradition of hymns that draw upon the imagery of the sea to establish the relationship between the believer and Christ. Edward Hopper (1816-1888) was inspired by the accounts of Jesus who stilled the storm found in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:35-41; Luke 8:22-25). Written at the request by George S. Webster, secretary of the Seaman’s Friend Society, the hymn was first published in the Society’s magazine, The Sailor’s Magazine and Seaman’s Friend in the March 3, 1871 issue. The designation was, “By Rev. Edward Hopper, D.D., Pastor of the Church of the Sea and Land.”

Hopper, a graduate of New York University (1839) and Union Theological Seminary (1842), was well acquainted with the sea, pastoring the Sag Harbor Presbyterian Church on Long Island for eleven years, and then spending the majority of his ministry at the Church of the Sea and Land in New York City. It was in this latter congregation that he became well known for his ministry to sailors.

Stanza one demonstrates the poet’s knowledge of both the synoptic narratives and the sailor’s life with references to “unknown waves,” “treacherous shoal,” and “chart and compass.” Stanza two begins with a maternal simile, “As a mother stills her child,/ thou can hush the ocean wild.” The poet cites directly from Scripture the words of Jesus, “Be still,” demonstrating that Christ is the “wondrous sovereign of the sea.” Stanza three acknowledges the dangers of sea travel when one approaches the shore. In this case, the shore is the fear of death. The hymn ends with the comforting words of the Savior, “Fear not, I will pilot thee.”

Originally in six stanzas, the missing three follow, the first of which draws heavily on the synoptic narratives:

  1. When the Apostles’ fragile bark
    struggled with the billows dark,
    on the stormy Galilee,
    thou didst walk upon the sea;
    and when they beheld thy form,
    safe they glided through the storm.

  2. Though the sea be calm and bright,
    sparkling with the stars of night,
    and my ship’s path be ablaze
    with the light of halcyon days,
    still I know my need of thee,
    Jesus, Savior, pilot me.

  3. When the darkling heavens frown,
    and the wrathful winds come down,
    and the fierce waves, tossed on high,
    lash themselves against the sky,
    Jesus, Savior, pilot me
    over life’s tempestuous sea.

While these stanzas demonstrate the author’s knowledge of the sea and the life of the sailor, they add little in terms of literary quality or narrative value to the hymn.

John Edgar Gould (1822-1875), a Bangor, Maine, native who was a composer, publisher, and merchant in New York City, composed the tune. He gave it the name PILOT when it appeared in The Baptist Praise Book (1871). A compiler of gospel song collections in Philadelphia after 1866, he was well acquainted with sea travel himself, dying in Algiers, in northern Africa in 1875.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.