“Nearer My God to Thee,” was a hymn written in 1941 by Sarah Flower Adams. Her sister, Eliza Flower, set the lyrics to music.
Sarah was born in 1805 to Unitarian parents. She worshiped in the Unitarian Church her whole life. Sarah grew up to be a poet. She also wrote 12 other hymns, but none of them as well known.
Sarah married William Bridges Adams. He, too, was a poet. He also had the reputation of being a bit of a hothead, but Sarah was said to have loved him dearly. She did, however, insist that a clause be added to their marriage agreement stating that she would do no housework. Sarah and William stayed together until her death from tuberculosis in 1848. Sarah was 43.
“Nearer My God to Thee” is often played on the piano, organ or violin at funerals. It is rarely sung, however, so most people are not familiar with the lyrics. The song is loosely based on Genesis 28, 11-12, in which Jacob goes to sleep with his head on a stone and has a dream of a ladder ascending to heaven.
Overall, though, the theme is that whatever happens, whether good or evil, it brings us closer to God as we know and understand him or her.
One of the first lyrics in the song is:
Even 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!
If you wish to read the rest of the lyrics, you can find them here.
Probably “Nearer My God to Thee” is famous because it is so strongly associated with the Titanic. Many survivors claimed that “Nearer My God to Thee” was the last song the orchestra played before the ship foundered. Filmmakers, most famously James Cameron in his 1997 picture about the Titanic have used this image to poignant effect.
Other survivors, however, including most of the ship’s crew that survived, said that the orchestra’s last song was “Autumn,” a light, popular melody. The band was always instructed, the crew said, to avoid doing anything that would cause panic among the passengers, no matter how dire the situation. A sad, somber song would have created a frightened stampede.
Whether “Nearer My God to Thee” was actually the Titanic’s swan song or not, it is a beautiful piece of music and appropriate for use as a funeral song or memorial song.