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Posts Tagged ‘James Garfield’

Just about three weeks ago, the world remembered the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.  I suspect that few events have impacted the psyche of the modern world like the sinking of this unsinkable ship, along with the tragic and needless deaths of over 1500 people, including some of the richest and most prominent people of their times.

One of the stories that persists in connection with the Titanic is that the string ensemble played Nearer My God To Thee until the very last moments before the ship sank, a story, whether true or not, certainly perpetuated by most of the movies about the Titanic, including the latest James Cameron Titanic (1997).

My memory of this great hymn places it among what we would have called communion songs, those songs sung just before serving the Lord’s Supper. As a boy, I remember this as being a very quiet time in our service, the lights dimmed, usually no music—just remembering the Lord’s death until He comes.

I’m sure it’s the mentioning of the cross in the first verse that made it seem appropriate for communion:

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,

Chorus: Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

It never really suggested imminent death to me, even though that appears to be the context in which it has been most often used.  Besides the Titanic story, this hymn is also associated with the death of two American presidents: William McKinley and James A. Garfield.

James A. Garfield

In 1881, just sixteen years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Garfield, the 20th president was shot in Washington, D.C., ironically, in the presence of Robert Todd Lincoln, the former president’s son.  He died 80 days later.  Nearer My God To Thee was played during his funeral procession.

Twenty years later, President William McKinley was shot while visiting the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, N.Y. . Here is the report from The Life of William McKinley (1916)

SUNSHINE in the sky above and gladness in the heart of the President brightened the morning of the 6th day of September, 1901. It was to be a holiday: a visit to Niagara Falls in the forenoon, a reception to the people in the afternoon. In joyous mood McKinley passed the hours of the excursion, his nature never more serene.  . . . As he approached, the President extended his hand;—but the proffered friendliness was met by two pistol shots which rang out from the revolver concealed in the seemingly bandaged hand. Instantly several of the guards seized the assailant and bore him to the ground. As they did so, one of them, kneeling by the head of the prisoner, glanced upward and saw the President, still standing, supported by friends, and gazing with an indescribable look of wonder and reproach.

While he was being helped to a chair the Secret Service men dragged the prisoner to the center of the temple and there some one struck him squarely in the face. Seeing this, the spirit of the Master, whom he had served all his life, came upon the stricken President, and he cried in a tone of pity, “Don’t let them hurt him.”

The friends now gathered about the wounded man were fanning him with their hats and watching anxiously to discern if possible the full extent of his injury. But the President’s mind was not upon himself. He was thinking of the beloved wife, who had leaned upon him so many years and whom he had always shielded so tenderly against the slightest care. As the Secretary bent over him, he whispered, tremblingly, “My wife—be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her—oh, be careful!”

The president was rushed into emergency surgery:

     At such a time as this, the very essence of the human spirit, which may have shrunk for a lifetime from exposure to the eyes of men, is likely to assert its presence. From the time he was ten years old, President McKinley had unreservedly, but without ostentation, put his trust in God. It was the richest, deepest thought of his inner soul, and now, as he closed his eyes, realizing that he was about to sleep, perhaps to wake no more, his lips began to move and his wan face lighted with a smile. It was the same trust that now supported him. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” he murmured. The surgeons paused. Tears came into the eyes of those about the table. “For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever, Amen.” With these words he passed into unconsciousness, while the earnest surgeons sought with all their skill to prolong his life.

McKinley seemed to do well immediately after the surgery and all were very hopeful, but suddenly, a week after the operation, he took a fatal turn for the worse:

In the afternoon of Friday the President knew that the time had come for him to bid farewell to the world. He called the surgeons to his bedside and said, “It is useless, gentlemen, I think we ought to have prayer.” His eyes were half closed and again the smile of sublime faith in the future illuminated his features. A solemn silence fell upon the assembled doctors and nurses and tears could not be restrained. The dying President moved his lips and again it was the Lord’s Prayer that welled from his overflowing heart. The twilight descended and the room grew dark.

 The room was silent. The President put his arm around his wife and smiled at her. The family group and intimate friends about the bedside watched and waited. Then the lips moved again and the worn face became radiant. The inner soul was speaking once more and was voiced in the lines of his favorite hymn:—

“Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee,
E’en though it be a cross—”

Fainter and fainter came the words until the whisper could scarcely be heard. Then a moment of silence. “That has been my inextinguishable prayer,” he murmured, almost inaudibly.

Perhaps one mark of the greatest hymns are those hymns which speak for our souls in the most critical moments, those we choose when our own words fail usNearer My God To Thee has been one of those hymns and will continue to be if we don’t forget it.

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,

Chorus: 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,

Chorus

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,

Chorus

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,

Chorus

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 

Lyrics:  Sarah Flower Adams (1841)

Tune:   “Bethany” Lowell Mason (1856)

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