By A. C. Bridges (Originally printed in the July 1982 ARP Magazine.)
Our Hymn-of-the-Month for July, “Eternal Father, Strong To Save,” is usually known in this country as “The Navy Hymn,” and the present first stanza always is sung in the chapel service at the U.S. Naval Academy at the close of the service with the congregation kneeling.
It is No. 521 in The Hymnbook and No. 629 in Trinity Hymnal. The hymn’s first stanza is addressed to the Father, the second to the Son, the third to the Holy Spirit and the fourth to the Holy Trinity. It brings to our minds Jesus calming the stormy sea, and it was headed in its first publication: “For those at sea. These (men) see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep.” (Psalm 107:23-32)
The hymn was written in 1860 but has been revised, and the author’s 1869 revision is now always the one printed. It is said to have been written by the author, William Whiting, for one of his pupils about to sail for America. It was the favorite hymn of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and was sung at his funeral. On Nov. 24, 1963, it was played by the Navy Band as the body of President John F. Kennedy was borne up the Capitol steps to lie in state, and the next day it was played by the Marine Band at the conclusion of the burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
The author, Whiting, was born in England in1825 and died there in 1878. He was master of Winchester College Choristers’ School for more than 20 years. One source says this is his only hymn; another says he wrote others but his fame rests entirely on this one. The hymnologist Julian lists others by Whiting but says the others have not met wide acceptance.
The tune is named Melita after the island now called Malta where the apostle Paul was shipwrecked. It was composed by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876) for this hymn, and it was first published in the musical edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861.
Dykes, composer of about 300 hymn tunes, many of which are in our books, was the son of a banker and showed early musical talent. When he was 10 years old he played the organ in the church his grandfather served. He was educated for the ministry of the Church of England and served in it the rest of his life. Because of his inclination to be “high church” he found himself in constant dispute with his “low church” bishop. Being denied the assistance he needed in his large parish, he suffered from poor health. Fifteen of Dykes’ tunes are in The Hymnbook and 19 in Trinity Hymnal. He is the composer of the famous tune to which we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.”
This hymn can be found in the Hymnbook 521 and Trinity Hymnal 630.
If you would like to hear the tune and read the verses in full, click here.