Hymn History: “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”

2 min

The drenched, terror-filled sailor clutched the helm. As another angry billow crashed against the ship, the entire vessel shuddered violently and then dropped into the hollow of the next giant wave. The storm raged relentlessly. Experienced sailors cried aloud, clinging white-knuckled to the railings. 

Also aboard was passenger William Whiting. He had committed his life to Christ years earlier. Awed by the powerful waves, he fervently, confidently petitioned the Master of the sea and wind. 

Finally the damaged ship limped into port. The passengers and crew were battered, but alive! The experience seemingly echoed Psalm 107:23–29:

They that go down to the sea in ships . . . see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger . . . and are at their wits’ end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he bringeth them out of their distresses. He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still. 

Sometime afterward, a student approached Mr. Whiting, who was a headmaster in England. The youth told of a time when he had stood on a dock, watching the turbulent ocean waves. He had been terrified to see their forcefulness. Now, in the headmaster’s office, he held in his trembling hand a ticket to sail to America. He was fearful of his upcoming voyage! Mr. Whiting encouraged the young man that even the strongest storm could not separate him from God’s care. As the student rose to leave, Mr. Whiting promised, “Before you depart, I’ll give you something to anchor your faith.” Keeping
his word, the school­master wrote a poem for the student’s voyage, titled “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”

English composer John B. Dykes paired these words with his tune, “MELITA,” named after the island of the Apostle
Paul’s shipwreck. Published in 1861, by the end of World War II (1945), the hymn had become widely known as “The Navy Hymn.” It was even played at the funerals of three U.S. presidents who served with the U.S. Navy: Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and George H. W. Bush. 

Cautiousness is “knowing how important right timing is in accomplishing right actions.” Naval officers understand the importance of right timing. Weather-tracking devices keep them informed so they can respond with appropriate actions. Not practicing caution can bring disaster to a ship and those aboard. As we learn to be cautious, we will be better equipped to glorify God through our right actions carried out at the right time.

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