Words: William Whiting, 1860. He wrote the lyrics as a poem for a student about to sail for America.
Music: Melita, John B. Dykes, in Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861. Dykes fittingly named the tune after a locale associated with a Biblical shipwreck. Melita was the
island the Apostle Paul reached after his ship went down (Acts 28:1); today we know it as the isle of Malta.
William Whiting (1825-1878)
In America, Eternal Father is often called the Navy Hymn, because it is sung at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It is also sung on ships of the British Royal Navy and has been translated into French. It was the favorite hymn of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and was sung at his funeral in Hyde Park, New York, April 1945. The Navy Band played it in 1963 as U.S. President John Kennedys body was carried up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to lie in state. Roosevelt served as Secretary of the Navy, and Kennedy was a PT boat commander in World War II.
The original words were written as a hymn by a schoolmaster and clergyman of the Church of England, the Rev. William Whiting. Rev. Whiting (1825-1878) resided on the English coast near the sea and had once survived a furious storm in the Mediterranean. His experiences inspired him to pen the ode, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” In the following year, 1861, the words were adapted to music by another English clergyman, the Rev. John B. Dykes (1823-1876) , who had originally written the music as “Melita” (ancient name for the Mediterranean island of Malta). Rev. Dykes’ name may be recognized as that of the composer given credit for the music to many other well-known hymns, including “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Lead, Kindly Light,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” and “Nearer, My God to Thee.”
In the United States, in 1879 the late Rear Adm. Charles Jackson Train, an 1865 graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis was a lieutenant commander stationed at the Academy in charge of the Midshipman Choir. In that year, Lt. Comdr. Train inaugurated the present practice of concluding each Sunday’s Divine Services at the Academy with the singing of the first verse of this hymn.
The hymn, entitled “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” is found in most Protestant Hymnals. It can be more easily located in these hymnals by consulting the “Index to First Lines” under “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The words have been changed several times since the original hymn by Rev. Whiting was first published in 1860-61. One will find that the verses as now published differ from the original primarily in the choice of one or two words in several lines of each verse.