Nearer, My God to Thee is a 19th century Christian hymn by Sarah Flower Adams, based loosely on Genesis 28:11-19,[1] the story of Jacob's dream. Genesis 28:11-12 can be translated as follows: "So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, because the sun had set. And he took one of the stones of that place and put it at his head, and he lay down in that place to sleep. Then he dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it..."

It is most famous as the alleged last song the band on RMS Titanic played before the ship sank.


These are the lyrics to the hymn, when sung.[1][2][3]

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!
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,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
There let the way appear steps unto heav'n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv'n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
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,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Text and music

The verse was written by English poet and Unitarian hymn writer Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848) at her home in Sunnybank, Loughton, Essex, England, in 1841. It was first set to music by Adams' sister, composer Eliza Flower, for William Johnson Fox's collection Hymns and Anthems.[4]

In the United Kingdom, the hymn is usually associated with the 1861 hymn tune "Horbury" by John Bacchus Dykes, while in the rest of the world, it is usually associated with the 1856 tune "Bethany" by Lowell Mason. Methodists prefer the tune "Propior Deo" (Nearer to God), written by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) in 1872. Sullivan also wrote a second setting of the hymn to a tune referred to as "St. Edmund", and there are other versions, including one referred to as "Liverpool" by John Roberts.

Played on RMS Titanic

"Nearer, My God, to Thee" is associated with the RMS Titanic, as many passengers reported that it was the last song the ship's band played as the Titanic sank. The song comes in three main versions (and five other alternate versions): the American version ("Bethany"; used in the 1943 nazi propaganda film Titanic, the Jean Negulesco's 1953 film Titanic and James Cameron's 1997 Titanic.), the British version ("Horbury" version was played in Roy Ward Baker's 1958 movie about the sinking, A Night to Remember), and the British Methodist version, Propior Deo, currently has not yet played in any Titanic movie to this date.

Sometime around 2:10 A.M. as the Titanic began its last plunge into the icy North Altantic, the sounds of ragtime, familiar dance tunes and popular waltzes that had floated reassuringly across her decks suddenly stopped as Bandmaster Wallace Hartley tapped his bow against his violin. Hartley and his musicians, some of them wearing their lifebelts now, were standing back at the base of the second funnel, on the roof of the First Class Lounge, where they had been playing for the better part of an hour.

There were a few moments of silence, then the solemn strains of a hymn began drifting across the water. It was with a perhaps unintended irony that Hartley chose a hymn that pleaded for the mercy of the Almighty, as the ultimate material conceit of the Edwardian Age, the ship that “God Himself couldn’t sink,” foundered beneath his feet. As the band played, the slant of the deck grew steeper, while from within the hull came a rapidly increasing number of thuds, bangs and crashes as interior furnishings broke loose, walls and partitions collapsed–the Titanic was only eight minutes from breaking apart, then the entire band was washed away by a sudden wave.

At first, it was said that the last music played by the Titanic‘s band was either the Episcopalian hymn “Autumn” or the popular waltz “Songe d’Automne.” However, the evidence for this rested solely on the uncorroborated testimony of Harold Bride, who told a reporter for the New York Times that the last song he remembered the band playing was called “Autumn.” This is a brief part of his testimony:

“From aft came the tunes of the band. It was a rag-time tune, I don’t know what. Then there was “Autumn”…The big wave carried the boat off. I had hold of an oarlock, and I went off with it…The ship was gradually turning on her nose—just like a duck does that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind—to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all the band went down. They were playing “Autumn” then…The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it while still we were working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn.” How they ever did I cannot imagine."

Bride, though, was the only person with that recollection, he only mentioned it once, and he never specified if he meant the hymn or the waltz. Moreover, despite the credence given him by some later historians, Bride was never the most reliable or consistent witness, and here his “memories” have to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. Tellingly, neither piece of “Autumn” music, the hymn or the popular waltz, is listed in the White Star Line’s music book for 1912. Also significant is that the hymn is not called “Autumn,” only the melody (much like the melody of the hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is known as “St. Anne’s”), and usually only a professional musician will refer to a piece of music that way–certainly not an 18-year old wireless operator. So without some sort of supporting or collaborating evidence, any piece of music named “Autumn” can be dismissed as the Titanic‘s orchestra’s last musical performance.

A very strong case can be made, however for “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” which legend has always said was the last music played aboard the Titanic. It is commonly believed to be the last song because there are a number of accounts of survivors who recalled hearing the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and therein lies a tale. Commentators who have rigidly committed to the “‘Autumn theory’” are quick to point out that there are two melodies associated with “Nearer My God to Thee;” one (“Bethany”) is American, the other (“Horbury”) is British, the two sound distinctly different from each other and are impossible to confuse–yet both American and British survivors claimed to have heard “Nearer My God to Thee” being played by the ship’s orchestra. What those same commentators fail to mention is that there is a third melody for “Nearer My God to Thee,” called “Propior Deo,” composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan, and it is here that the mystery of the last music played by Wallace Hartley and his fellow musicians finally begins to unravel itself. The melody “Propior Deo” would have been well known to the British passengers aboard the Titanic, and in passages it sounds very similar to “Bethany”–and nothing at all like “Horbury.” In the noise and confusion of the night, it would hardly be surprising if both Americans and Britons, hearing only snatches of music, would both believe that they were hearing the version of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” with which they were most familiar. All the members of the Titanic's band, save for one French member, were British. Thus the American version is out of the question. The leader of the band, Wallace Hartley, was a Methodist, and so was yet another member of the band. And so the possible versions of "Nearer My God To Thee" that could have been played that night are the British and the British Methodist versions.

Moreover, “Nearer My God to Thee” was known to be a favorite of Hartley’s–who was also a friend of Sir Arthur Sullivan and who liked Sullivan’s music–and it was the hymn played at the graveside of all deceased members of the Musician’s Union. Perhaps most convincing of all is a report in the Daily Sketch on April 22, 1912, where a colleague of Hartley’s recalled how some years earlier, while working aboard the Mauretania, he asked Hartley what he would do if he found himself on the deck of a sinking ship. Hartley replied that he would assemble the ship’s orchestra and play “O God Our Help in Ages Past” or “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Somehow, taken all together, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” seems definitive enough.

Other associations

Another tale, surrounding the death of President William McKinley in September 1901, quotes his dying words as being the first few lines of the hymn.[5] At 3:30 in the afternoon of September 14 1901, after five minutes of silence across the nation, numerous bands across the United States played the hymn, McKinley's favorite, in his memory.[5] It was also played by the Marine Band on Pennsylvania Avenue during the funeral procession through Washington and at the end of the funeral service itself[5], and at a memorial service for him in Westminster Abbey, London. It was also played as the body of assassinated American President James Garfield was interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio and at the funeral of former United States President Gerald R. Ford.

The Rough Riders sang the hymn at the burial of their slain comrades after the Battle of Las Guasimas.[6]

A film called "Nearer My God to Thee" was made in 1917 in the UK. "Nearer, My God, to Thee" is sung at the end of the award-winning 1936 movie San Francisco. It is also the title of a painting by physician Jack Kevorkian. William F. Buckley mentions in the introduction to his 1997 book "Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith" that the title was inspired by "Nearer My God to Thee".

At the beginning of the The Simpsons Movie (2007), Green Day is seen playing a concert in Springfield on a barge. After finishing the Simpsons Theme Song, they begin to talk about the environment and start to get stones thrown at them by the audience. Meanwhile, their barge begins to dissolve due to the toxicity of the lake. As the barge begins to sink, bassist Mike Dirnt quotes the film Titanic, uttering Hartley's line, "Gentlemen, it's been an honor playing with you tonight."[7] They all take out violins and begin to play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" while sinking. This Titanic gag was also used in the film Osmosis Jones, but the line is changed to "Gentlemen, playing with you has been the greatest pleasure of my life." In the South Park episode, Summer Sucks, the boys play "Nearer, My God, to Thee" during the pandemonium after the giant snake was lit.

Ted Turner, speaking shortly before the launch of CNN, promised that, barring technical problems, "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event.... and when the end of the world comes, we'll play 'Nearer My God to Thee' before we sign off."[8]



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