A Tragic Tune: “Nearer, My God, to Thee”

“Nearer, My God, to Thee” is a 19th-century Christian hymn written by sisters Sarah Flower Adams and Eliza Flower.

It is based loosely on Genesis 28:11-19, the story of Jacob’s dream:

So he came to a certain place and stayed there all night, becuase 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 dscending on it…

The hymn was first written in verses by Sarah. Then in 1881, the verses were set to music by Eliza for William Jonson Fox’s collection “Hymns and Anthems”.

It is widely known for supposedly being played by an eight-member music group as the Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. All of them died in the sinking.


William Henry Hartley was the leader of the music group. According to his bandmates, he said he would either play “Nearer, My God, to Thee” or “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” if he were ever on a sinking ship. Since his father used to play the “Propior Deo” version of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” by Arthur Sullivan at a church, his family felt sure that he would have played that song.


The tune was played at Hartley’s funeral in 1912 soon after his body was found “fully dressed with his music case strapped to his body”, and a bust of him was erected in 1915 with an inscription that commemorates “the heroism of a native of this town”.


Here is a violin version of the song:

Here is a choir version of the song:


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