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Sung by the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters
An instrumental sample of a single verse from Eternal Father, Strong to Save.
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"Eternal Father, Strong to Save" is a hymn traditionally associated with seafarers, particularly in the maritime armed services. Written in 1860, its author William Whiting was inspired by the dangers of the sea described in Psalm 107. It was popularized by the Royal Navy and the United States Navy in the late 19th century, and variations of it were soon adopted by many branches of the armed services in the United Kingdom and the United States. Services who have adapted the hymn include the Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, the British Army, the United States Coast Guard and the United States Marine Corps, as well as many navies of the British Commonwealth. Accordingly, it is known by many names, variously referred to as the Hymn of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, the Royal Navy Hymn, the United States Navy Hymn (or just The Navy Hymn), and sometimes by the last line of its first verse, "For Those in Peril on the Sea." The hymn has a long tradition in civilian maritime contexts as well, being regularly invoked by ship's chaplains and sung during services on ocean crossings.
The original hymn was written in 1860 by William Whiting, an Anglican churchman from Winchester, Great Britain. Whiting grew up near the ocean on the coasts of England, and at the age of thirty-five had felt his life spared by God when a violent storm nearly claimed the ship he was travelling on, instilling a belief in God's command over the rage and calm of the sea. As headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers' School some years later, he was approached by a student about to travel to the United States, who confided in Whiting an overwhelming fear of the ocean voyage. Whiting shared his experiences of the ocean, wrote the hymn to "anchor his faith". In writing it, Whiting is generally thought to have been inspired by Psalm 107, which describes the power and fury of the seas in great detail:
Within a year the text appeared in the influential first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (HA&M) in 1861 and its circulation became widespread throughout England. The text was substantially revised by the compilers of that edition. In response Whiting continued to revise his own text, releasing another version in 1869 and third in 1874, the last one incorporating most of the suggested changes by HA&M.
Meanwhile, John B. Dykes, an Anglican clergyman, composed the tune "Melita" to accompany the HA&M version of 1861. Dykes was a well-known composer of nearly three hundred hymn tunes, many of which are still in use today. "Melita" is an archaic term for Malta, an ancient seafaring nation which has been a colony of the British Empire. It was the site of a shipwreck, mentioned in Acts of the Apostles (chapters 27-28), involving the Apostle Paul.
The original words of the 1861 version are:
Certain verses have been changed in modern hymnals for various reasons. The first verse refers to God the Father's forbidding the waters to flood the earth as described in Psalm 104. The second verse refers to Jesus' miracles of stilling a storm and walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The third verse references the Holy Spirit's role in the creation of the earth in the Book of Genesis, while the final verse is a reference to Psalm 107.
The adoption of the hymn for devotional use and benedictions in the armed services was first recorded in 1879. In that year, Lieutenant Commander Charles Jackson Train was a navigation instructor at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and the master of the Midshipman Choir. Train began the practice of concluding Divine Services with the 1861 version of the hymn every Sunday, whereby it eventually became an academy, and then a service-wide, tradition, becoming known as the Navy Hymn. Various changes were made to the lyrics to suit changes in the culture and technology of the navy. Numerous additional variants have been written as well for various purposes, often to specifically represent a particular branch of naval service.
Adoption of the hymn by the Royal Navy may have occurred earlier than its use in the United States, though no clear records exist for when the hymn was first used. However, the hymn was in widespread use by the 1890s in the British naval services, though it was felt the text did not succinctly capture the experience of the navy enough and the wording has thus evolved. An extra verse was added during World War I to reflect the introduction of the Royal Naval Air Service. The result today is a hymn somewhat different from its American counterpart, with the optional fifth verse for specific service branches being recited between the second and third verses.
In 1940, the U.S. Episcopal Church altered three verses of the hymn to include travel on the land in the second verse (referencing Psalm 50) and in the air in the third verse (again referencing Genesis). This was published as Hymn #513 while the original lyrics were also published as Hymn #512 in The Hymnal 1940. The Hymnal 1982, which is in current use by most Episcopal congregations in the USA, has further revised this version (as Hymn #579) with opening line "Almighty Father, strong to save..." by adding the word "space" to the final verse, so it ends "Glad praise from space, air, land, and sea", acknowledging the possibility of space travel. The Hymnal also has a more traditional water-only version (as Hymn #608) with opening line "Eternal Father, strong to save..." The 1940 version — incorporating sea, land, and air is:
Stanzas 2-3 of the version in the 1940 Hymnal were written by the American bishop Robert Nelson Spencer (1877–1961) and published in 1937.
United States Marines
Doctors and Corpsman
This hymn was among those sung on August 9, 1941, at a church service aboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales attended by Winston Churchill (who requested that the hymn be sung) and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the conference creating the Atlantic Charter. It was also disputably the last song sung during the Sunday Church Service on 14 April 1912 aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.
On Saturday, May 19, 2012, it was the last hymn to be sung during the Church Service held upon a symbolic field of battle at Windsor Castle as part of the Armed Forces Tribute to the Commander in Chief of the combined services, HM Queen Elizabeth II. The Tribute marked the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, or 60th anniversary, of her accession to the thrones of the United Kingdom, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories, and Dominions and Realms of the Commonwealth of Nations, as well as her accession to the position of Sovereign and Head of State of the Commonwealth of Nations.
This hymn has been played or sung at a number of funerals for those who have served in or been otherwise associated with the U.S. Navy. It was sung at the funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, played by the Navy Band at the funeral of John F. Kennedy, sung at the funeral of Richard Nixon, and played by the Navy Band and the Coast Guard Band during the funeral of Ronald Reagan. Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Kennedy was commanding officer of PT-109 in World War II, and Nixon served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific Theater. The hymn was also played to close the funeral of R. Buckminster Fuller, as well as at the Memorial Ceremony in Norfolk, VA for the USS Cole (DDG-67) after the bombing of the ship in October 2000. The hymn was also played at the funeral services of those killed among the crew of the USS Maine at the beginning of the Spanish-American War. It was performed by the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters at the State Funeral of President Gerald R. Ford, who had served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific Theater. The hymn was sung by the congregation attending the funeral of news broadcaster Walter Cronkite at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City. This was the last hymn sung at the funeral of Claude Choules, the last living fighter from WWI, at his funeral in Fremantle, Western Australia on May 20, 2011.
The hymn, and variants of it, make numerous appearances in films, TV shows, literature and other formats.