“Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The Navy knows it well, and for good reason.

Sung regularly at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, it is considered “the Navy hymn.” It was sung at the funerals of former presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

But the hymn itself has a history with the sea — a history that dates back over 150 years.

The story began when the hymn’s author, William Whiting, was just a boy:

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.”

Years later, when he was a professor at Winchester College, Whiting supposedly penned the poem for a student who was apprehensive about a trans-Atlantic journey, saying:

“Before you depart, I will give you something to anchor your faith.”

The result was the hymn that has since been adopted by both the American and British navies:


Eternal Father, strong to save,

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,

Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep:

O hear us when we cry to thee,

For those in peril on the sea

O Christ, whose voice the waters heard

And hushed their raging at thy word,

Who walked’st on the foaming deep

And calm amid its storm didst sleep;

O hear us when we cry to thee

For those in peril on the sea

O holy Spirit, who didst brood

Upon the waters dark and rude,

And bid their angry tumult cease

And give, for wild confusion, peace:

O hear us when we cry to thee

For those in peril on the sea.

O Trinity of love and power,

Our brethren shield in danger’s hour,

From rock and tempest, fire and foe,

Protect them whereso’er they go:

Thus evermore shall rise to thee

Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

The raised voices of a new generation of sailors served as a fitting tribute to those who came before them, succumbing to the waves on that “date that shall live in infamy” 75 years ago.

And behind them on the wall hung a sign that was more fitting still: “Don’t give up the ship.”

Related: The Real Story Behind The ‘Don’t Give Up The Ship!’ Phrase

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