All Request Summer Hymn Sing
Eternal Father Strong to Save
June 17, 2018
This morning we continue our summer focus on music with a request from Jim Kissell who requested Eternal Father Strong To Save – better known to some as the Navy Hymn.
In 1860, the story goes, a young man about to embark on a voyage to America confessed his fear of the sea to English poet William Whiting. Having grown up on the sea and having survived at least one major shipwreck, Whiting knew a little of both oceans and fears, so he wrote a prayer for the young man to recite if he was afraid during the voyage. Tradition states he drew his inspiration for the prayer from Psalm 107. A year later composer John Dykes set Whiting’s prayer to music.
This 1861 version of Eternal Father Strong to Save is number 8 in the hymnal. We’re going to start by singing it together.
In giving his young friend a prayer for his voyage, William Whiting wrote a modern psalm. Like the Psalms, Whiting’s prayer draws on God’s creative power and history of faithfulness to instill confidence in the one who is praying. Unlike the Psalms, Whiting sets his prayer in a decidedly trinitarian context. One verse each for Father, Son and Spirit followed by a final concluding verse.
Verse one instills confidence by brining to mind the many Old Testament passages describing God as setting boundaries on the mightiness of the ocean. My favorite of these comes from Job 38
Where you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding.
Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? When I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped?
Verse 2 turns to Jesus and the gospel accounts of Jesus walking on water and calming a storm. From Matthew:
Jesus and the disciples got into the boat and set out from shore. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but Jesus was asleep. And they went and woke him saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then Jesus got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.
Verse three turns to the Holy Spirit and takes us back to Genesis and the creation story:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the earth was a formless evoid and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters. And God said, let the waters under the sky be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear. And it was so.
Stanza after stanza William Whiting reminds us of God’s creative power, of the divine role of protector. God created the seas so God can control the seas. Jesus protected his disciples so Jesus will protect us. The Holy Spirit blew the waters into being so continues to be present even when land is far away. A short request for God to listen follows each of the first three stanzas, but Whiting reserves the main request for the final verse.
O Trinity of love and power
All travelers guard in danger’s hour
From rock and tempest, fire and foe
Protect them where-so-e’er they go
Thus, evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad praise from air and land and sea
Eternal Father Strong to Save quickly gained broad popularity across the navies of the British empire and then in the United States Navy. In 1937 an otherwise anonymous poet named Robert Nelson Spencer wrote new words specifically for naval use. This new version became known as the Naval Hymn, which we’ll sing now.
Do you notice the differences between the two versions?
In the fourth verse Robert Nelson Spencer replaces the broad term “travelers” with the fraternal term “brethren.” Across the first three verses Spencer makes sure the prayer includes all those brethren. By the 20th century navies were more than ships. Aviators took to the skies. Marines deployed to locations far removed from the coastlands. Spencer’s prayer specifically mentions each aspect of naval life.
In doing so – and this is the most significant difference – Robert Nelson Spencer loosens the prayer’s connection to scripture. We loose the powerful reminder of Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm. We loose the security of knowing how the Holy Spirit brings control to the chaos.
My very limited research unearthed almost 20 additional verses for Eternal Father Strong To Save. I’m sure even more exist. I found verses for SeaBees and astronauts, navy women and submariners, families back home and the wounded in the hospital, polar explorers and commissioning new ships. Every part of the navy wants to be included and the prayer stretches to accommodate them all.
Yet in its hunger to include the prayer moves further and further from its roots as a Psalm. Our own prayers can suffer from the same disconnect. We ask because we’re hungry for God’s favor. Yet in our hunger to ask we can forget the Psalmists’ important ritual of reminding ourselves of what God has done. When we forget how God has acted in the past its harder to have faith concerning God’s actions in the future. The prayer remains but it looses its power – not with God, who listens just the same, but with those of us who struggle to look into the storm and believe.
We’re now going to revisit the hymn one more time, with the help of the Naval Academy Glee Club. They pair Eternal Father Strong to Save with the Battle Hymn of the Republic. We’ll hear both songs.