Eternal Father, Strong to Save

Last month, at the funeral of President George H. W. Bush, the hymn Eternal Father, Strong to Save was sung. 
This was a song I recognized from the last line of the first verse. The title I was familiar with was For Those in Peril on the Sea. My familiarity with the hymn under this title, came from the hymns connection to the Titanic. This was the hymn strongly believed to have been sung on that fateful Sunday of April 14, 1912, at the close of the worship service only hours before the famed liner collided with an iceberg.

William Whiting
William Whiting

William Whiting was an Anglican churchman from Winchester, England. He was born on November 1, 1825 in Kensington, England. He was educated at Chapman and Winchester College.
Whiting grew up on the coasts of England and was very familiar with the sea. He was a poet and published two poetry collections in 1851 and 1867.
When he was thirty-five years old, a violent storm nearly claimed the ship he was selling on. He felt God spared his life as he called on him to calm the sea.
Years later, in 1860, while headmaster of the Winchester College Chorister’s School, where he served for 36 years, a student approached him who was about to travel to the United States. The student confided his fear of the upcoming voyage and Whiting shared his own experiences of the ocean and wrote this hymn “to anchor his faith”. He is believed to have been inspired by Psalm 107 in his writings.

We can see where he drew for inspiration:
Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.
Psalm 107: 23–26

In 1861, his text first appeared in the Hymns Ancient and Modern. Whiting continued to revise his text as his poem spread throughout England. 
William Whiting died on may 3, 1878 in Winchester, about the time the Navy of both his home country of Great Britain and across the ocean in the United States began using his popular hymn. 

John B. Dykes {1823-1876}, an Anglican minister, composed a tune known as “Melita” to accompany the hymn. Melita was the island the Apostle Paul reached after he was shipwrecked.

John B. Dykes

John Bacchus Dykes was born on March 10, 1823 in Hull England. By the age of 10, he was the assistant organist at St. John’s Church, where his grandfather was vicar. He studied at Wakefield and St. Catherine’s College and co-founded the Cambridge University Musical Society. He was ordained as curate of Malton in 1847. He published many sermons and articles on religion but is best known for his hymn tunes. He died in Sussex on January 22, 1876 at the age of 53.

Dykes was a well known composer of over three hundred tunes. Some of his tunes include Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!; Jesus, lover of my soul; All Hail the power of Jesus name; Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed; and O perfect love, all human thoughts transcending.

The hymn was soon popularized and adopted by the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy, Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, British Army, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Marine Corps. Each particular branch of the service altered the lyrics to represent their branch. For this reason the hymn is often referred to as Hymn of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, the Royal Navy Hymn, the United States Navy Hymn (or just The Navy Hymn), and sometimes by the last line of its first verse, “For Those in Peril on the Sea”.

The Royal Navy began using the hymn before 1879, which was when the U. S. Navy first recorded the hymn and began to use in both academy ceremonies and church services.

On August 9, 1941, the hymn was sung at a service aboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales, in which both Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt were in attendance. The service commemorated the creation of the Atlantic Charter.

The hymn has been sung at a number of funerals including those of Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George H. W. Bush. All of these presidents {except Reagan} served in the U.S. Navy.

The song was also performed for the memorial services of the USS Cole and USS Maine and the funerals of news broadcaster Walter Cronkite and Senator John McCain.


  • Bob

    I wonder if it was used at Churchill’s funeral. I’m guessing yes but haven’t been able to verify.

    • I found a copy of Churchill’s funeral program online. There were four hymns and the English national anthem sung at Churchill’s funeral. These hymns are “O God Our Help in Ages Past”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Who Would True Valour See”, “Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might” and “God Save the Queen”.

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