The hymn “Nearer, My God to Thee” also appears in some hymnals under the title of “The Christian Life.” The song has been a great source of comfort to many in their final hours. It was played as they laid President James A. Garfield’s body at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio in 1890. It was also a song of comfort to William McKinley before his death in 1901. "Nearer, My God, to Thee" was reported sung by the crew of the SS Valencia as it sank off the Canadian coast in 1906. It has been reported that it was among the last songs played on the R.M.S. Titanic before it sank in 1912. It has been a much beloved hymn to many; although at first the hymn was not so well received.
Sarah Fuller Flower Adams 1805-1848), Lyricist
Sarah Fuller Flower Adams was born February 22, 1805 in Harlow, Essex, England. Her parents were Benjamin Flower and Eliza Gould. Her mother met Benjamin while he was imprisoned for writing criticisms of some political matters. Eliza Gould appreciated his stand, and she ended up marrying him. Some sources state Sarah’s middle name as “Fuller,” but others have the middle name of “Flower.” Fuller was her middle name, Flower was her maiden name, and Adams was her married name. They had two daughters.
Sarah wrote a series of columns for a paper called the Monthly Repository from 1832–1835, which led to her meeting John B. Adams who also wrote a column. They married in 1834. Her husband encouraged her to the stage, and she appeared starring as “Lady Macbeth” in 1837. While she enjoyed the experience and was well received, she did not have the constitution for this work. So, she decided to devote more time to lyrics and dramatic poems.
The lyrics for this hymn were composed by Sarah Adams in November 1840. It appeared in Hymns and Anthems in 1841, along with a dozen or so other works by Sarah Adams. This poem was her highest achievement. She was a Unitarian, and the hymn was criticized for its lack of reference to Jesus. When Lowell Mason provided another tune for the words, the hymn was well received across denominational lines.
Sara Adams died August 14, 1848 of tuberculosis at the age of 43. Some theorize she contracted this through exposure to her sister, Eliza, who died of the disease two years prior. She was buried in Foster Street Burial Ground in Harlow, Essex England along with her parents and sister Eliza. John and Sarah Adams had no children.
Lowell Mason (1792-1872), Composer
Lowell Mason was born January 8, 1792 in Medfield, MA. He became a music director at the age of 17. He moved to Savannah, GA when he was 20 years of age. While there, he was known to educate black children, even establishing a Sunday school to educate them. He would return to Boston, MA in 1827.
He was married to Abigail Gregory Mason who died in 1889. They had 4 sons: Daniel Gregory, (b. 1820 in Savannah, GA); Lowell, Jr. (b. 1823 in Westborough, MA,); William (b. 1829 in Boston, MA) and Henry, (b. 1831 in Boston, MA).
To say that Lowell Mason was a popular music composer would be to put it mildly when one considers the songs to his credit including “Joy to the World,” “Mary Had A Little Lamb,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” and “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” He was considered one of the greatest music educators of the United States. He was the co-founder of the Boston Academy of Music in 1833. He was a major educator of musicians, and his reputation only grew as time went on. He is sometimes referred to as the “Father of American Music Education”. He not only composed music, but he also published many musical compositions. He loved the works of Handel and Mozart and published hymns with their musical works in 1822.
In 1851 he retired and moved to New York to work in the music industry with his sons, David and Lowell Mason, Jr. He did a major tour of Europe which ignited his interest in congregational music. He accepted the position of Music Director for the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1853. He retired again in 1860 and moved to Orange, NJ. Mason died August 11, 1872 and is buried in Rosedale Cemetery in Orange, NJ.
The lyrics for this hymn were set to Mason’s tune called BETHANY which was created in 1856. The meter of the hymn is 184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11. The song first appeared with a different music of 6/8 time composed by Sarah’s sister Eliza, but it was deemed too difficult to master. There were other tunes used for this poem, but none were as popular as BETHANY. When Lowell set it to his tune of BETHANY of 4/4 time, then the hymn became extremely popular.
Nearer, My God To Thee
The basis for the hymn is reported to be Genesis 28:18–22, “Then Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put at his head, set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel; but the name of that city had been Luz previously. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You’” (NKJV.) She was encouraged to write the lyrics based on this Biblical account by the preacher where she attended.
One can see the connection with reference to “my rest a stone.” The connection between the poem and the text is seen more clearly in the verse that appears in the original poem, but is often omitted from some printings of the hymn: “Then with my walking 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 to Thee!” Some hymnals include an additional verse written by Edward H. Bickersteth, Jr.
Jacob was on the run from Esau. He was the child of promise, though he was an imperfect man. Still, he recognized the importance of being near to God even if under dire circumstances. Sometimes God has a way of allowing us to enter into circumstances that ought to make us want to draw nearer to Him, but sadly some rebel and go further away. The psalmist David expressed the same with his words “Draw near to my soul, and redeem it; deliver me because of my enemies” (Psalm 69:18, NKJV.)
The name “Bethel” means “house of God.” It should be every person’s desire to have God be nearer to them in life, not just in their final hours! Being nearer to God includes being with the Lord’s people, the household of God (cf. Ephesians 2:19.) The Preacher warned us to remember God since “the years draw near when you say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 NKJV) As we get older, we should want to draw even nearer to God. Some may have failed to become Christians when they were younger, but they should never doubt that God seeks to have them come to Him (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).
If you are not a Christian, then we plead with you to follow the words of James: “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (James 4:7–8, NKJV.)
Draw nearer to God, so you can sing with confidence “Nearer, My God to Thee.”
Ernest K. Emurian. Living Stories of Famous Hymns. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1955, 91–93.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.
“Nearer, My God, to Thee.” No Pages. Cited 25 November 2017. Online: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/n/m/nmgtthee.htm.
“Nearer, My God, to Thee.” No Pages. Cited 25 November 2017. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nearer,_My_God,_to_Thee.
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1937, 380–381.
Russell L. Dyer. “Nearer My God To Thee.”Hymns and Songs We Sing. Bedford, TX: Brown Trail School of Preaching, 2002, 145-155.
“Sarah Fuller Flower Adams 1805-1848.” No Pages. Cited 25 November 2017. Online: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/a/d/adams_sff.htm.
“Sarah Fuller Flower Adams.” No Pages. Cited 25 November 2017. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Fuller_Flower_Adams.
V. E. Howard and Broadus E. Smith, eds. Church Gospel Songs & Hymns. Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
William J. Fox. Hymns and Anthems. London: Charles Fox, 1841.