“Eternal Father, Strong to Save”

I’m nervous around water.  Not the water-in-the-sink kind of water, but the it’s-over-my-head-and-I-can’t-swim kind of water.  Water makes a lot of people nervous.  Storms make a lot of people nervous.  Storms on the water can be downright terrifying.  Have you ever had any storms in your life?  Those can be terrifying, too.

William Whiting was the headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers’ School in England.  In 1860, a student confided to Whiting that he was afraid of the ocean voyage he would soon be taking to America.  From a childhood on the coasts of England and a near tragedy at sea, Whiting’s faith in the God who ruled the oceans had grown strong.  He wrote the hymn poem Eternal Father, Strong to Save  to “anchor the faith” of his student.

Whiting found inspiration for his hymn in the words of King David.

Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.  They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.  For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.  They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.  They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,  and he brought them out of their distress.   He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.  They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.  Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. (Psalm 107:23-31NIV)

Whiting’s hymn became widespread throughout England.  Through the years, some verses of the hymn were modified and others added as the song was adopted by various branches of the armed services of the United States and the United Kingdom.   The version found in many hymnals today is an 1869 revision by Whiting.

In 1861, Anglican clergyman and composer John B. Dykes composed the powerful tune MELITA to accompany Whiting’s hymn.  “Melita”, now known as Malta,  was a colony of the British Empire, and significantly, the site of a shipwreck of the Apostle Paul, described in Acts 27-28.

During World War II, the hymn was used at the funeral for almost all sailors buried at sea. If there was no band or recording available, it was sung a cappella by the crew or the words were read by the commanding officer.  The song was used in services for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite.  It has been performed at memorials for the crews of USS Maine, USS Cole and many more.  It was the last hymn sung at the funeral of Claude Choules, the last living fighter from WWI, at his funeral in 2011.  It is sung at shipboard Sunday services on many vessels, and is said to be the last song sung during the Sunday Church Service on April 14, 1912, aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.

Whether we are experiencing the storms of weather or the storms of life, there is no reason to fear.  We serve the God who is greater than the forces in and of the earth.