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Eternal Father, Strong to Save

posted Nov 11, 2012, 10:36 AM by Steven Vaughan   [ updated May 25, 2016, 3:23 PM ]
This “Armed Forces Hymn” prays for those on active military duty.  Rev. William Whiting, who lived on the coast of England and had once survived a furious storm in the Mediterranean, wrote this poem in 1860 for a student of his who was about to sail to the United States. 

The following year his text was set to music by another English clergyman, Rev. John B. Dykes, who composed many well-known hymns, including Holy, Holy, Holy and Nearer, My God to Thee.  He called this tune MELITA, the old name for Malta; the site of the shipwreck St. Paul writes about in chapters 27-28 in Acts of the Apostles. 

In 1879, the United States Naval Academy started the practice, still in use today, of concluding each Sunday's Divine Services by singing the first verse, causing it to become known as the “Navy Hymn”.  Bishop Robert N. Spencer altered some of the original text for the 1937 U.S. Episcopalian hymnal to recognize additional modes of transportation used in the military; on land in the second verse for the army and in the air in the third verse for the air force.  Additional verses have subsequently been written for the Marines, Seabees, submariners, astronauts, SEALS, doctors, nurses and the Coast Guard. 

It was the last hymn sung during the Sunday, April 14 church service aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.  It was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite, and sung at his funeral, as well as Richard Nixon's.  It was played as John F. Kennedy's body was carried up the steps of the capitol to lie in state, and at Ronald Reagan's funeral by the Navy Band and the Coast Guard Band.  For Gerald R. Ford's funeral it was performed by the U.S. Navy Sea Chanters.  And it was sung by the congregation of St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City for Walter Cronkite's funeral.  It's been heard in the TV series 24 and JAG, as well as the movies Crimson Tide, The Right Stuff, The Perfect Storm and Titanic, though that film anachronistically uses the 1940's verses that hadn't been written yet in 1912.