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Eternal Father, Strong to Save

“Eternal Father, Strong to Save” is the Navy hymn. William Whiting from Winchester, England wrote the words as a poem in 1860 for a student about to sail to the United States. A year later, a fellow Englishman and Episcopalian clergyman, the Rev. John Bacchus Dykesk wrote the melody. It is sung on ships of the Royal Navy, at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and in churches all across our nation.

“Eternal Father” was the favorite hymn of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was sung at his funeral in Hyde Park, New York, on April 1945. It was also played by the Navy Band in 1963 as President John F. Kennedy’s body was carried up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to lie in state. Roosevelt had served as Secretary of the Navy and Kennedy was a PT boat commander in World War II. 

As a U. S. Navy veteran who never went to sea, I still love both the melody and the words of our hymn: “Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave, Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep; Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea!”

“I am a Hebrew,” Jonah answered. “I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made land and sea.” Jonah went on to tell (the ship’s crew) that he was running away from the Lord. The sailors were terrified, and said to him, “That was an awful thing to do!” The storm was getting worse all the time, so the sailors asked him, “What should we do to you to stop the storm?” Jonah answered, “Throw me into the sea, and it will calm down. I know it is my fault that you are caught in this violent storm.” (Jonah 1:9-12)

The sea has, since ancient times, been a dark and forbidden place and William Whiting was inspired by the dangers of the sea described in Psalm 107. In those early days, boats sailed along the coast, never daring to venture out into the deep and unknown seas. We dismiss Columbus’ voyage to discover a new route to India because we grew up with ships sailing the high seas all over the world. But in those days, when very few ships dared lose sight of land, his was an extraordinary feat of launching into the unknown.

In fact, he made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain; in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502. He was determined to find a direct water route west from Europe to Asia, but he never did. Instead, he stumbled upon the Americas. Though he didn’t really “discover” the New World — millions of people already lived there — his journeys marked the beginning of centuries of exploration and the colonization of North and South America.

The sea and its incredible storms can still be a fearful place, unless you know the God who created the sea with a word, and his Son Jesus, who calmed the sea with another word.