Essay / On This Day

Today is Sarah Fuller Flower Adams' Birthday (1805)

It’s really only for one hymn that we remember Sarah Adams (1805-1848), but what a hymn: “Nearer My God to Thee.”

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!

It’s a meditation on suffering, written by a woman who was often sick and endured considerable pain. The softness of the language conceals the steeliness of the resolve: Even if they lift me up on a cross, I will be closer to God.

Much of the hymn’s power comes from its resonant allusions to the story of Jacob’s dream. Adams evokes the darkness and terror of Jacobs’ situation: he was on the run from a brother who wanted to kill him for what he had done to him; it was pitch black in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere; and he had the worst pillow in the world. Adams sketches all this, and then affirms: “Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to thee.”

Jacob dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels coming down and going up. Adams captures the two-way traffic with “all that thou sendest me” and “angels to beckon me.” When she awakes from the dream, she will build an altar and name the place “house of God,” turning her “stony griefs” (bad pillow!) into a memorial of intimacy with God.

Or, in the final stanza, she might die before she wakes. If so, then she’s nearer to her God. The hymn is a tiny tour-de-force of imaginative biblical interpretation.

Though it’s been a beloved song since it was first published, there is a shadow over it: Adams was a Unitarian. Because she didn’t do much theological writing, it’s hard to say just how far she deviated from the full doctrine of the Trinity, or how she dealt with the clear biblical teaching of Christ’s deity. There’s nothing positively anti-trinitarian in the hymn, and no words that would obstruct the belief in Jesus as God.

But the Trinity’s a big deal, and it has consistently bugged trinitarians that the great hymn is by a unitarian. One history of hymns tracks the various changes that editors have made to the hymn in order to keep the shadow of unitarianism from corrupting its use in trinitarian churches. A Baptist hymnal of 1851 adds this final verse:

Christ alone beareth me
Where Thou dost shine;
Joint heir He maketh me
Of the Divine:
In Christ my soul shall be,
Nearest, my God, to Thee—
Nearest to Thee!

Pretty nice, but technically still nothing in there to make an anti-Trinitarian mad. And making anti-Trinitarians mad is worth doing: R. A. Torrey once said that “if the Unitarian … should get to heaven they would have no song to sing,” or at least the song he would have to sing would be a trinitarian one, which would be awkward for him. “He would be very lonesome and feel that he had got into the wrong pew.”

So how about this addition from 1864:

Glory, O God, to Thee;
Glory to Thee,
Almighty Trinity
In Unity
Glorious Mystery,
Through all Eternity
Glory to Thee!

Yes, that would do it. It’s not exactly well integrated with the theme of the rest of the song, but it sure gets the Trinity in there. The most successful alteration, and the one that has been most successful in finding a home in the hymnals, is the one made by Bishop Bickersteth who said in 1876, “The Editor shrunk from appending a closing verse of his own to a hymn so generally esteemed complete,” but went ahead and came up with this:

There in my Father’s home,
Safe and at rest;
There in my Saviour’s love
Perfectly blest;
Age after age to be
Nearer, my God to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.

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