Sarah Fuller Flower Adams, born in February of 1805 in Essex, England, was the daughter of Benjamin Flower, a nonconformist journalist, and Eliza Gould, a teacher. She had an older sister, Eliza, who would eventually put many of Sarah’s poems to music. Sarah went deaf by the end of her life. While she had wanted to be an actress, her health prevented her, so she turned to writing. She and her sister made an impression on author Harriet Martineau, and they came to know young Robert Browning, among other well-known writers. Sarah and her family were of the Unitarian church. In September of 1834, Sarah married William Adams.
Over the years, Sarah published many poems, not all of which were hymns, and reviews to various publications and like her father was very involved in social issues. “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” credibly her best-known hymn, was published in 1840-41, and it became known in America in 1844. While her sister wrote the original music, the tune most people know is from 1856 called BETHANY by Lowell Mason. Additionally, the sixth verse of the hymn was added by Edward H. Bickersteth, Jr. after the hymn was published. This hymn is claimed to have been the final song played on the sinking RMS Titanic. This is fitting as the theme of the hymn, though textually based on Jacob at Bethel, is about Christ bringing us through life. Sarah died in August of 1848, and hymns she wrote were sung for her funeral.
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en 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!
As mentioned before, the theme of this hymn is about wanting Christ near us throughout life. One might ask is, “What should the walk of a Christian be?” The answer should always be to turn to or draw near to Christ (Heb. 10:1-25). When should we then draw near to and grown in Him? Always. Even, the operative word, when we are in times of trouble, in trials, in hardship (Matt. 16:24, Mar. 8:34, Rom. 8:35-39). Even in these times, we shall sing and plead that we might be brought near to God. We can do nothing on our own, least of all walk through life where we know we “will have trouble” (Jhn. 16:33). Even if what draws us closer to Christ is suffering, even then we desire to be closer to God and He will draw near to us (Jas. 4:6-8). Finally, each stanza ends with the refrain that echoes the opening of the hymn. Our plea should always be to desire nearness with God, our strength and Savior.
Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone.
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God to Thee.
This verse, and many of the following verses, will draw on imagery from Jacob’s journey and stay at Bethel (Gen. 28:10-22). However, this verse also continues the theme of the hymn. Even when we are alone, without a home, a stranger with nothing, and the world is dark – literally or spiritually – even in these times, our thoughts should be on God (Psa. 18:14, 42-43, Heb. 2:17-3:1) Our prayer and plea should be that God draws us closer to Him as we desire to be near Him, comforting and protecting us (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.
And God does promise to be with us. Though these verses also contains imagery from Genesis, God sends or gives us all things in mercy as He did Jacob. And what did He promise the Patriarchs? “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go” (Gen. 26:24, 28:15, Jos. 3:7). He has promised the same for us, for who else can we rely on – in heaven or on earth – besides our God? (Psa. 73:23-26, Matt. 28:20). God sends us everything we have or need – including His own Son – in mercy because we do not deserve them yet He gives them anyway (Psa. 119:148, 2 Cor. 1:20, 7:1, Heb. 4:16, 1 Pet. 1:3-6). God is forever faithful, and He loves us. Thus, we should desire to be near to God and praise Him who care for us.
Then, with my waking 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.
So what is our response to these great mercies God has granted us? Praise! This should always be our response in addition to contrition and thanks, for God is worthy of all our praise (Psa. 96:4, Rev. 4:11). This verse also draws on the account from Genesis when Jacob raises up the stone he laid on as a pillar and names the place Bethel, or house of God (Gen. 28:17-19). We too should look up from our “stony griefs” and turn our thoughts to praise and God (Acts 5:42, 2 Thes. 1:5). As He is with us in our times of peace and times of woe, so too should we turn to Him with praise during our bad times and good (Psa. 22, Jas. 5:13).
Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.
This verse seems to combine two things: times of joy and the time of death. As said previously, we do not use good times as an excuse to forget all that God has done for us. Rather, we use these times as another chance to sing praises to our God for all the marvelous things He has done for us (Psa. 107:8-9, 147:1). Further, though this verse clearly contains much imagery not found in Scripture of the soul going to God, even in death we will be brought nearer to God, and we will dwell with him forever (1 Cor. 15:54-58, Phl. 1:23, Rev. 21:3).
There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee.
Finally, at the end, we will dwell in the place prepared for us with God forever; we will finally be with Christ (Jhn. 14:1-4, Rom. 6:3-8). Forever, in our Father’s home, who has always been our fortress, we will dwell in our Savior’s love and peace for life everlasting (Psa. 18:2, Jhn. 6:47-58, 2 Tim. 2:10-13). This is what He promised us and what He desires for us. Therefore, from the beginning of our life, through our walk with Him, and until He calls us home, our hope should be that we might be nearer to Christ.
Blessings to you and yours,