For Those in Peril on the Sea
by Pastor George Van Alstine

One part of the third presidential debate that has received a lot of notice in the media is the interaction between the two candidates about the number of ships America needs in its modern Navy. My mind wandered from the details they were discussing to thoughts of what it must feel like to be on a ship in the middle of the ocean when the waves swell and the winds build toward a oncoming storm. Even the largest ship afloat must seem mighty small at a time like that.

As I meditated on this, I found myself humming the tune of the majestic “Navy Hymn”:

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, 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 walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amidst its rage didst sleep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, 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 wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

The author, Rev. William Whiting (1825-78), lived on the English coast and had himself experienced a storm at sea. Because of his personal experiences, his sense of the dark power of the mysterious deep can be felt between the lines of his poem.

As the presidential debaters pointed out, technology has changed how a modern military operates; the warships of 1860 seem like tin cans, as obsolete in battle as horses and bayonets. So the “Navy Hymn” has been repeatedly updated to keep in step with the times. The original two middle stanzas have been dropped in most hymnals and replaced by a stanza about land forces, transported by trucks and tanks, and another about air forces, bombers and fighter planes. By doing this, the hymnal editors have unconsciously added to the original poem’s reference to the Holy Trinity (“Eternal Father” in stanza 1, “Christ” in stanza 2, “Holy Spirit” in stanza 3) a modern “trinity” of danger – “peril on the sea” in stanza 1, “peril on the land” in stanza 2, “peril in the air” in stanza 3. Also, various other specialized military units have added their own final stanza, including the Marines, the Seabees, the Coast Guard, submarine units, antarctic units and space flight astronauts. Stanzas have also been added to honor women in military service and “wounded warriors” recovering from illness or injury. All of these have their place as a way of acknowledging the varieties of gifts and skills it takes to defend our country’s values in complex and dangerous times.

Yet, I love the simplicity of the sea image in the original hymn: The Father is in control of the vast oceans, limiting their borders and reigning in their ferocity (stanza 1); The Son, when he was on earth, demonstrated this control by calming the sea in the center of a violent storm (stanza 2); The Holy Spirit “brooded over” the apparent chaos of the sea to bring forth an orderly and peaceful creation (stanza 3).

I believe that some person reading this article feels very much in peril, tossed about in the middle of a deep, dark, confusing life journey. Call me up, and I’ll sing the “Navy Hymn” to you.