Navy Hymn

It’s one of the most famous hymns in Christendom: “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” It’s often called “the Navy hymn” because it’s sung at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.  But how many of us know the story behind this moving hymn?

The hymn’s author was an Anglican churchman named William Whiting, who was born in England in 1825. As a child, Whiting dodged in and out of the waves as they crashed along England’s shoreline. But years later, on a journey by sea, Whiting learned the true and terrifying power of those waves. A powerful storm blew in, so violent that the crew lost control of the vessel. During these desperate hours, as the waves roared over the decks, Whiting’s faith in God helped him to stay calm. When the storm subsided, the ship, badly damaged, limped back to port.

The experience had a galvanizing effect on Whiting. As one hymn historian put it, “Whiting was changed by this experience. He respected the power of the ocean nearly as much as he respected the God who made it and controls it.”

The memory of this voyage allowed Whiting to provide comfort to one of the boys he taught at a training school in Winchester.

One day, a young man confided that he was about to embark on a journey to America—a voyage fraught with danger at that time. The boy was filled with dread at the thought of the ordeal to come. A sympathetic Whiting described his own frightening experience, and he and the other boys prayed for the terrified student. And then Whiting told him, “Before you depart, I will give you something to anchor your faith.”

Whiting, an experienced poet, put pen to paper, writing a poem reminding the boys of God’s power even over the mighty oceans. It begins:

“Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave.”
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea!

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