The song alternately known as the “Navy Hymn,” “For Those in Peril on the Sea” or “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” dates back to 1860. During the 19th century, hymnbooks typically included sections of hymns devoted to the subject of divine protection for travelers, particularly for naval travel.
This hymn has likely been the most commonly performed piece of that type over the years. The words were written by clergyman William Whiting and the melody was composed by clergyman and musician John B. Dykes, both of the United Kingdom. Hymn tunes are given names and Dykes named his composition “Melita” in reference to the island where the biblical apostle Paul was shipwrecked in Acts 27. Whiting, who lived in London, is said to have written the words to go with the melody to comfort a young person who was about to set sail for America.
Whiting (1825−1878) was Master of an Anglican school for musicians and had himself survived a violent storm at sea during which the ship was in danger of being lost. While teaching at the Winchester College Chorister’s School, the story is told, he was approached by a student who related his fear of traveling to Whiting. In response, Whiting wrote a poem that became the basis for the words of the hymn which was published about a year later. Whiting continued to modify the words of the songs as long as he lived, but the words commonly used in hymnbooks have remained relatively standard for many years.
John Bacchus Dykes (1823−1876) came from a family that included a number of clergymen, but his gift was music. It is said that he was proficient on various instruments, primarily keyboards, violin and horn, and he had been involved performing and composing religious music since his youth. Dykes primarily worked as a church musician and composed complete hymns, dozens of hymn tunes and edited hymnbooks. In addition to the hymn tune used for the Navy Hymn, Dykes also composed “Nicaea” which many would recognize as the melody for the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Use of this hymn by the United States Naval Academy is believed to date back to around 1879 when Rear Admiral Charles Jackson Train instituted it as part of Sunday divine services at the Academy.
The hymn was gradually added over time to the naval military traditions of the United States, Great Britain and France. It has also been associated with historical occasions. It is said to have been the favorite hymn of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was sung at his funeral. It was also performed as the casket of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was carried up the steps to the United States Capitol Building to lie in state.
Youtube link to the United States Naval Academy Glee Club performing the Navy Hymn, acapella version.
Youtube link to the United States Marine Band performing an instrumental version of the Navy Hymn.
Dedicated to Lieutenant Commander Carl B. Bolin, USN.