Nearer my God to Thee Hymn

Nearer my God to Thee – Introduction of the Hymn

This is The Hymn of the Week with Dr. Larry Frazier—presenting the good news in song, combining faith and everyday experience.

On Friday, September 13, 1901, an important man lay dying in a well-appointed house in Buffalo, New York. After saying goodbye to several friends and associates who had gathered around his deathbed, he put his arms around his beloved wife and began to slowly and softly recite the first lines of his favorite hymn. His course, dying voice became fainter and fainter.

Midway through the first stanza after the words, “e’en though it be a cross,” his whisper could scarcely be heard at all. He lapsed into silence, and a few moments later is reported to have said, “That has been my inextinguishable prayer; it is God’s way.”

Not long after midnight, the announcement, “The president is dead sent the United States and much of the world into mourning. President William McKinley had died from wounds from an assassin’s bullet inflicted a week earlier. Throughout the country, from the United States Marine Band in the capitol, from community bands, church organs, and spontaneously from the voices of thousands along the route of the funeral train from Buffalo to Washington, D.C., to the final resting place in Canton, Ohio, Americans expressed their solidarity and grief through the playing and singing of Nearer my God to Thee…The Hymn of the Week!

Click below for Nearer my God to Thee Lyrics

Nearer my God to Thee Lyrics Graphic Template

Nearer my God to Thee: Hymn of the Week Radio Show Episode

Reading of Nearer my God to Thee Lyrics

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.

(Refrain) Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer 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.

(Refrain) Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.


There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.

(Refrain) Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.


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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

(Refrain) Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee
.

Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly.
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

(Refrain) Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.



There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest.
Age after age to be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

(Refrain) Nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer to Thee.


And now, let us hear our hymn, sung by your host, Dr. Larry Frazier, to the tune, "Bethany," arranged by pianist Terry Lowry.

Background of Nearer my God to Thee

"Nearer my God to Thee" is based on the story of Jacob and his dream of a ladder or ramp reaching from earth to heaven as recorded in Genesis 28: 10-22. Sarah Adams beautifully captures the spirit of this passage in the second third and fourth stanzas of this hymn. These stanzas have given particular comfort to the dying and bereaved.

Popular in the United States and in England

Sarah Flower Adams wrote"Nearer my God to Thee" as one of a set of thirteen hymns. She submitted it to her pastor, the prominent 19th-century London Unitarian minister, William Johnson Fox. Subsequently, Fox published it in 1841 in his "Hymns and Anthems," a collection for use by his congregation, South Place Unitarian Church, Finsbury, London. Edward H. Bickerstaff, Jr., a prominent Anglican bishop and hymn compiler, later added a sixth stanza. The hymn was quite popular and was published three years later in the United States in, "Disciples’ Hymn Book," by James Freeman Clarke.

Sarah Flower's Marriage

Sarah Flower was born in Harlow, Essex, England, in 1805, the daughter of prominent British journalist and politician, Benjamin Flower. She aspired to a career in the theatre. In 1834, at the relatively advanced age of 29, she married British railroad pioneer William Bridges Adams. Adams was inventor of the railway fishplate and the Adams axle (a radial axle box in use until the 1960s). She insisted and Adams agreed to a “no housekeeping” clause in the marriage contract.  

Actress, Playwright and Author of Religious Works

Though she was a successful actress and playwright—she wrote and played the leading role in a play about Lady Macbeth—illness shortened her theatrical career.

In addition to the thirteen hymns previously mentioned, she continued to write articles for magazines, as well as religious works. Examples are "The Flock at the Fountain," a catechism for children, 1845, and epic poems such as "Vivia Perpetua." This latter work was about a saint of third-century Carthage who was martyred for her Christian faith.  Sarah Flower Adams died of tuberculosis in 1848.

Jacob's Ladder

Nearer my God to Thee is based on the story of Jacob and his dream of a ladder or ramp reaching from earth to heaven on which angels ascended and descended, during which he received an assurance of God’s presence and blessing, as recorded in Genesis 28: 10-22.

Comfort for the Dying and the Bereaved

Sarah Adams beautifully captures the spirit of this passage in the second, third and fourth stanzas of our hymn, which has given particular comfort to the dying and the bereaved. It was played at the funerals of U.S. presidents James Garfield, William McKinley and Gerald Ford.

Nearer my God to Thee Played on the Titanic

According to survivors, it was played by the band as the great ship Titanic sank in waters off the coast of Newfoundland, in 1912. The hymn is widely sung in the United States to the tune, Bethany. In England, Anglicans sing it to the tune, "Horbury," and some Methodists sing it to "Proprior Deo." The hymn continues to have deep meaning and impact today, regardless of the tune with which it is paired.

And now, let us hear the tune, "Bethany," performed by the United States Air Force Band.

Background of the Tune

In the United States, the tune almost universally sung to, Nearer my God to Thee, is "Bethany." It was composed in 1856 by prominent music educator and church musician, Lowell Mason. Mason was director of music at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City when he composed this tune.

Born in Medfield, Massachusetts, in 1792, the son of a mechanic of limited financial resources, Lowell Mason had from his earliest years a great passion for music. He learned to play a number of instruments, but he excelled as a singer. By the age of 16, he was teaching classes on singing.

Lowell Mason - Early Career in Savannah, Georgia

Lowell Mason left Massachusetts at the age of 20 and moved to Savannah, Georgia, to make his mark as a banker. In Savannah, he continued his music studies with the German teacher, Frederick Abel, and soon became director of music, organist and choirmaster at the Independent Presbyterian Church. There, he established music classes in the Sunday school, where he taught the children rudimentary skills by the use of hymns and other church music.

Lowell Mason - Father of Music Education in the U.S.

The first collection of his original compositions was published in Boston, in 1821, by the Handel and Haydn Society, a prestigious organization devoted to the promotion and performance of classical music. This collection was a great success an ultimately, led Mason to return to Massachusetts in 1827. In Boston, he established music classes for children based on the model he had developed in Savannah. By the mid-1830s his music teaching methods became a part of the prescribed education program of the public schools of Boston—the first public school music education program in the United States. He established the Boston Academy of Music in 1833 and was appointed Superintendent of Music for the Boston school system in 1838. Mason wrote over 1600 church music compositions, including the music for numerous familiar and popular hymns.

Inspiration for the Composition of Bethany

Shortly before his death in 1872, Mason gave the following account of the circumstances surrounding his composition of the tune, "Bethany." “When we (namely Mason, Edward A. Park and Austin Phelps) were compiling the collection known as "The Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book," they applied to me for a musical setting for the hymn, "Nearer my God to Thee." The meter was irregular, but one night some time later, lying awake in the dark, eyes wide open, through the stillness of the house the melody came to me, and the next morning, I wrote down the notes of "Bethany.” It proved to be one of his most popular hymn tunes.

Horbury

Throughout Great Britain, the 1861 tune, "Horbury," by John Bacchus Dykes, is the tune most often sung with Nearer my God to Thee. Born in 1823 in Hull, England, Dykes was a prolific writer whose sermons and religious articles were widely published. Also an accomplished organist, he composed over 300 hymn tunes before his death in 1876.

Propior Deo

The Third tune associated with Nearer my God to Thee is "Propior Deo," by Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900), who wrote a number of sacred music compositions, but who is most famous as the composer in the lyric theater duo known everywhere as “Gilbert and Sullivan.” Sullivan’s tune was favored by a number of British Methodists.

Identified by the Tune

The wide popularity of "Nearer my God to Thee" paired with more than one tune demonstrates the symbiosis that occurs when memorable hymn poetry is combined with a beautiful and suitable hymn tune. Though the hymn text can stand by itself without any music, it is often loved and identified by the tune with which it is paired. This is a possible explanation for the truth in conflicting accounts by survivors of the Titanic. Most stated that the ship’s band played "Nearer, My God, to Thee." Others insisted that another hymn was played. As bands play tunes, not text, listeners, naturally identified the hymn by the tune with which they were familiar; hence the conflicting accounts.

And now, we hear our hymn sung to the tune, "Horbury," by St. Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, and Maurice Vinden.

Devotion or Scripture Associated with Hymn

"Nearer me 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 my God to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!"

In the words of William McKinley, may we make these verses, “our inextinguishable prayer…It is God’s way!

Now, let us hear our hymn set to the tune, "Propior Deo," beautifully performed by the Scottish Festival Singers, conducted by Ian McCorie.

Thank you for joining me for this episode of The Hymn of the Week. Tune in again next week when we will consider another great hymn.

Until then, this is your host, Dr. Larry Frazier…

Goodbye, and Keep Singing!

About the Author Larry Frazier

Larry spent 24 years teaching music at the University of West Georgia to over 6,000 students. Ten years ago, Larry and his wife Mary Lynn, received comfort, support and inspiration from traditional Christian hymns while she overcame stage-three colon cancer. Larry is on a mission to help you discover God’s incredible power through the intersection of faith and Christian music in your life.

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