Eternal Father, Strong to Save

"Eternal Father, Strong to Save" is a British hymn traditionally associated with seafarers, particularly in the maritime armed services. Written in 1860, its author William Whiting was inspired by the dangers of the sea described in Psalm 107. It was popularised by the Royal Navy and the United States Navy in the late 19th century, and variations of it were soon adopted by many branches of the armed services in the United Kingdom and the United States. Services who have adapted the hymn include the Royal Marines, Royal Air Force, the British Army, the US Coast Guard and the US Marine Corps, as well as the navies of many Commonwealth realms. Accordingly, it is known by many names, variously referred to as the 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 hymn has a long tradition in civilian maritime contexts as well, being regularly invoked by ship's chaplains and sung during services on ocean crossings.

Eternal Father, Strong to Save

Service hymn of the  Royal Navy
Also known as"Melita" (music)
LyricsWilliam Whiting, 1860
MusicJohn Bacchus Dykes, 1861
Audio sample
"Eternal Father, Strong to Save" (instrumental)
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The original hymn was written in 1860 by William Whiting, an Anglican churchman from Winchester, United Kingdom. Whiting grew up near the ocean on the coasts of England, and at the age of thirty-five had felt his life spared by God when a violent storm nearly claimed the ship he was travelling on, instilling a belief in God's command over the rage and calm of the sea. As headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers' School some years later, he was approached by a student about to travel to the United States, who confided in Whiting an overwhelming fear of the ocean voyage. Whiting shared his experiences of the ocean and wrote the hymn to "anchor his faith".[1] In writing it, Whiting is generally thought to have been inspired by Psalm 107,[2] which describes the power and fury of the seas in great detail:

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

Within a year the text appeared in the influential first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (HA&M) in 1861 and its circulation became widespread throughout England.[3] The text was substantially revised by the compilers of that edition. In response Whiting continued to revise his own text, releasing another version in 1869 and third in 1874, the last one incorporating most of the suggested changes by HA&M.[4]

Meanwhile, John B. Dykes, an Anglican clergyman, composed the tune "Melita", in 88 88 88[5] iambic meter, to accompany the HA&M version of 1861. Dykes was a well-known composer of nearly three hundred hymn tunes, many of which are still in use today.[6] "Melita" is an archaic term for Malta, an ancient seafaring nation which was then a colony of the British Empire, and is now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It was the site of a shipwreck, mentioned in Acts of the Apostles (chapters 27–28), involving the Apostle Paul.

The original words of the 1861 version are:

The first verse refers to God the Father forbidding the waters to flood the earth as described in Psalm 104. The second verse refers to Jesus' miracles of stilling a storm and walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. The third verse references the Holy Spirit's role in the creation of the earth in the Book of Genesis, while the final verse is a reference to Psalm 107.[7]

The adoption of the hymn for devotional use and benedictions in the armed services was first recorded in 1879. In that year, Lieutenant Commander Charles Jackson Train was a navigation instructor at the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and the master of the Midshipman Choir. Train began the practice of concluding Divine Services with the 1861 version of the hymn every Sunday, whereby it eventually became an academy, and then a service-wide, tradition, becoming known as the Navy Hymn. The lyrics were altered to suit changes in the culture and technology of the navy.[8] Additional variants have been written, often to specifically represent a particular branch of naval service.[9]

Adoption of the hymn by the Royal Navy may have occurred earlier than its use in the United States. Although no clear records exist for its first use, the hymn was in widespread use by the 1890s in the Royal Navy. An extra verse was added during World War I to reflect the introduction of the Royal Naval Air Service. The result today is a hymn somewhat different to its American counterpart, with the optional fifth verse for specific service branches being sung between the second and third verses.

Multiservice rewording

In 1940, the US Episcopal Church altered three verses of the hymn to include travel on the land in the second verse (referencing Psalm 50) and in the air in the third verse (again referencing Genesis). This was published as Hymn No. 513 while the original lyrics were also published as Hymn No. 512 in The Hymnal 1940. The Hymnal 1982, which is in current use by most Episcopal congregations in the US, has further revised this version (as Hymn #579) with opening line "Almighty Father, strong to save..." by adding the word "space" to the final verse, so it ends "Glad praise from space, air, land, and sea", acknowledging the possibility of space travel.[10] The Hymnal also has a more traditional water-only version (as Hymn #608) with opening line "Eternal Father, strong to save..."[11] The 1940 version—incorporating sea, land, and air is:

Other variants

Several additional or variant verses are in use in the US military services, including the US Marines, US Navy Seabees, submariners and US Coast Guard.[12]

Notable uses

This hymn was among those sung on 9 August 1941,[14] at a church service aboard the Royal Navy battleship HMS Prince of Wales attended by Winston Churchill (who requested that the hymn be sung) and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the conference creating the Atlantic Charter.[15] It was also disputably the last song sung during the Sunday Church Service on 14 April 1912 aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.[16]

In British politics, the hymn is used as the tune to the Liberal Democrats Glee Club song Hymn 666, which laments on the SDP-Liberal Alliance.[17]

In the summer of 2009, the French frigate Latouche-Tréville was filmed in stormy seas as part of the documentary Oceans.[18] A video was set to the Naval Hymn.

Use in funerals

This hymn has been played or sung at a number of funerals for those who have served in or been associated with the US Navy. It was sung at the funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, played by the Navy Band at the funeral of John F. Kennedy, sung at the funeral of Richard Nixon, and played by the Navy Band and the Coast Guard Band during the funeral of Ronald Reagan. Roosevelt had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Kennedy was commanding officer of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 in World War II, and Nixon served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific Theater.[19] The hymn was also played to close the funeral of Buckminster Fuller, as well as at the Memorial Ceremony in Norfolk, Virginia, for the USS Cole after the bombing of the ship in October 2000. The hymn was also played at the funeral services of those killed among the crew of USS Maine at the beginning of the Spanish–American War. It was performed by the United States Navy Band Sea Chanters at the state funeral of President Gerald Ford, who had served in the Navy during World War II in the Pacific Theater. The hymn was sung by the congregation at the funeral of news broadcaster Walter Cronkite at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York City. This was the last hymn sung at the funeral of Claude Choules, the penultimate living World War I veteran, at his funeral in Fremantle, Western Australia on 20 May 2011. The hymn was sung by the congregation and choir during the funeral for Senator John McCain at the Washington National Cathedral on 1 September 2018[20] and at the funeral for former President George H.W. Bush at the Washington National Cathedral on 5 December 2018,[21] as both were US Navy officers (specifically pilots).


  1. "Eternal Father, Strong to Save". Center for Church Music. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  2. Osbeck, Kenneth W. (1985). 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. p. 81. ISBN 978-0825434204.
  3. Monk, William Henry (1861). Hymns Ancient and Modern. London, UK: Novello and Company.
  4. Glover, Raymond F. (1994). The Hymnal 1982 Companion. New York, NY: Church Hymnal Co. p. 608. ISBN 978-0898691436.
  5. The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America 1940, Hymn 512, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save".
  6. Osbeck, Kenneth W. (1985). 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. p. 80. ISBN 978-0825434204.
  7. Osbeck, Kenneth W. (1985). 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. p. 81. ISBN 978-0825434204.
  8. ""Eternal Father, Strong to Save": The Navy Hymn". Naval History and Heritage Command. Archived from the original on 9 July 1997. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  9. "Eternal Father – The "Navy Hymn"". Department of the Navy. Retrieved 14 June 2013.
  10. Glover, Raymond F. (1994). The Hymnal 1982 Companion. New York, NY: Church Hymnal Co. p. 579. ISBN 978-0898691436.
  11. Glover, Raymond F. (1994). The Hymnal 1982 Companion. New York, NY: Church Hymnal Co. p. 608. ISBN 978-0898691436.
  12. "Eternal Father, Strong to Save: The Navy Hymn". Naval Historical Center. 3 November 1997. Archived from the original on 9 July 1997.
  13., Retrieved 14 February 2012.
  14. Hal Buell, ed. (2006). World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle of the World's Greatest Conflict. New York City: Tess Press. p. 124. ISBN 1-57912-408-9.
  15. "W.G. Parker". Archived from the original on 22 August 2011. Retrieved 2 September 2011.
  16. Lord, Walter (1976). A Night to Remember. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-004757-8.
  17. "Liberator Songbook". Liberator Magazine. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  18. "Oceans (2009)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 14 September 2015.
  19. Myers, Whitney V. (26 May 2008). "The Story Behind Eternal Father Strong to Save". Whitney Tunes.
  20. Haring, Bruce. "John McCain Funeral: Livestream, Schedule, Speakers & More". Deadline Hollywood. Penske Business Media, LLC. Retrieved 1 September 2018.
  21. "World leaders attend national George HW Bush funeral". ABC7 Chicago. 4 December 2018. Retrieved 5 December 2018.
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