Nearer, My God, to Thee

"Nearer, My God, to Thee" is a 19th century Christian hymn based loosely on Genesis 28:11-19, the story of Jacob's dream. Genesis 28:11-12 can be translated as follows: "So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it..."


These are the lyrics to the hymn, when sung.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E'en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song would be nearer, my God, to Thee,
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,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!


There let the way appear steps unto heav'n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv'n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!


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,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!


Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Text and music

The verse was written by British actress, dramatic poet and Unitarian hymn writer Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848) at her home in Sunnybank, Loughton, Essex, England, in 1841. In the United Kingdom, the hymn is usually associated with the 1861 hymn tune "Horbury" by John Bacchus Dykes, while in the rest of the world, it is usually associated with the 1856 tune "Bethany" by Lowell Mason. Methodists prefer the tune "Propior Deo" (Nearer to God), written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) in 1872. Sullivan also wrote a second setting of the hymn to a tune referred to as "St. Edmund", and there are other versions, including one referred to as "Liverpool" by John Roberts.

Played on RMS Titanic

"Nearer, my God, to Thee" is traditionally associated with the RMS Titanic, as passengers reported that the ship's band played the hymn as the Titanic sank. The "Bethany" version was used in Jean Negulesco's 1953 film Titanic, whereas the "Horbury" version was played in Roy Ward Baker's 1958 movie about the sinking, A Night to Remember. The "Bethany" version was again used in James Cameron's 1997 Titanic.

Wallace Hartley, the ship's band leader, who like all the musicians on board went down with the ship, was known to like the song and to wish to have it performed at his funeral. He was British and Methodist, and would have been familiar with both the "Horbury" and "Propior Deo" versions, but not with "Bethany". His father, a Methodist choirmaster, used the "Propior Deo" version at church for over thirty years. His family were certain he would have used the "Propior Deo" version, and it is this tune's opening notes that appear on Hartley's memorial.

A dramatic paraphrase of the hymn tune was written for wind band by the Danish composer, Carl Nielsen. His version includes a musical rendition of the collision between boat and iceberg.

"Nearer, my God, to Thee" was also sung by the doomed crew and passengers of the SS Valencia - indeed it may be the source of the Titanic legend.

Other associations

Another tale, surrounding the death of President William McKinley in September 1901, quotes his dying words as being the first few lines of the hymn. On the af­ter­noon of September 13 1901, af­ter five min­utes of si­lence across the na­tion, bands in Un­ion and Mad­i­son Squares in New York Ci­ty played the hymn in mem­o­ry of the fall­en pre­si­dent. It was al­so played at a me­mor­i­al ser­vice for him in Westminster Abbey, London.

The Rough Riders sang the hymn at the burial of their slain comrades after the Battle of Las Guasimas. It was also played as the body of assassinated American President James Garfield was interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

"Nearer, My God, to Thee" is sung at the end of the award-winning 1936 mo­vie San Francisco. A 1917 film called "Nearer My God to Thee" was made in 1917 in the UK. It is also the title of a painting by physician Jack Kevorkian. This song was also played during the funeral of former United States President Gerald R. Ford.

William F. Buckley mentions in the introduction to his 1997 book "Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith" that the title was inspired by "Nearer My God to Thee".

At the beginning of the The Simpsons Movie (2007), Green Day is seen playing a concert in Springfield on a barge. After finishing the Simpsons Theme Song, they begin to talk about the environment and start to get stones thrown at them by the audience. Meanwhile, their barge begins to dissolve due to the toxicity of the lake. As the barge begins to sink, bassist Mike Dirnt quotes the film Titanic, uttering Hartley's line, "Gentlemen, it's been an honor playing with you tonight. They all take out violins and begin to play "Nearer, my God, to Thee" while sinking. This Titanic gag was also used in the film Osmosis Jones, but the line is changed to "Gentlemen, playing with you has been the greatest pleasure of my life."

In the South Park episode, Summer Sucks, the boys play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" during the pandemonium after the giant snake was lit.

Ted Turner, speaking shortly before the launch of CNN, promised that, barring technical problems, "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event.... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer My God to Thee' before we sign off.



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