In his October general conference address, President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, related how he and other church leaders barely survived a boat-rocking sea storm near Western Samoa in 1971. The turbulent experience gave the apostle personal insight into the central message of one of his favorite LDS hymns, which he quoted.
“There is in our hymnbook a very old and seldom-sung hymn that has very special meaning to me,” President Packer said. “Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from his lighthouse evermore, but to us he gives the keeping of the lights along the shore. Let the lower lights be burning; Send a gleam across the wave. Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, you may rescue, you may save.”
“Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” No. 335, is one of a handful of songs in the Latter-day Saint hymnbook with maritime themes. “Master, the Tempest is Raging,” “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” and a few others also contain lyrics with oceanic imagery and symbolism that teach lessons for finding refuge from life’s storms by depending on the Savior. Each one is inspiring in its own way and stems from a compelling background.
Michael F. Moody served as chairman of the LDS Church music committee for 25 years and directed the production of the hymnbook currently used by the church. Moody, who recently returned from serving as president of the Papeete Tahiti Temple, said the ocean is an effective gospel object lesson.
“The power of the ocean, the majesty, the breadth, the expanse, it’s really enveloping and overwhelming to stand on the shore and watch. It reflects the majesty of God and his power. It’s one of the visual aids we have to acknowledge that there had to be some creator, some power to create something so magnificent,” Moody said. “Ironically, the ocean is peaceful and can also be tempestuous. It’s an analogy for peace and the power of God.”
'Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy'
In her 1988 book, “Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and the Messages,” Karen Lynn Davidson researched origins of the hymns and their composers.
"Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy" was originally written by Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876) and called “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” in the old LDS hymnbook.
Bliss was raised in poor circumstances in Pennslyvania. At age 11, with little education, he left home to do farm and timber work. At age 12, he joined the Baptist Church. Later in life, he affiliated with both the Methodists and Congregationalists. For many years, Bliss worked as a traveling music teacher and a singing evangelist with a preacher named Dwight L. Moody while publishing at least 10 hymn collections. He is responsible for the lyrics and music of “More Holiness Give Me” (No. 131) and wrote the music for “Should You Feel Inclined to Censure” (No. 235).
There is an interesting link between Bliss and the LDS Church, Davidson said. Bliss and his wife were among more than a hundred people killed in an Ohio train disaster. His friend, James McGranahan, went to the scene of the accident and among his friend’s effects he found a new hymn text by Bliss. In his honor, McGranahan set it to music; it’s now the tune used for “O My Father.”
According to Davidson’s book, the inspiration for "Brightly Beams” came from an anecdote told by Dwight L. Moody. The story tells of a boat that was trying to reach a harbor amid a treacherous storm. The ship’s captain could see the lighthouse, but the lower lights had gone out. The captain attempted to land anyway, but missed the channel and crashed the boat into the rocks, losing many lives to a watery grave. The message of the hymn is, “The Master will take care of the great lighthouse; let us keep the lower lights burning.”
In President Packer’s case, there was a light on the hill, but two elders waiting on the beach with the lower light had fallen asleep and neglected to turn it on. The captain tried to maneuver the boat into the channel with a flashlight, but it was no use. Despite the perilous elements, the boat made for another landing and safely arrived near daylight, in time to dry their clothes and organize a new stake.
“I do not know who had been waiting for us at the beach. I refused to let them tell me,” President Packer said in his conference talk. “But it is true that without that lower light, we all might have been lost.”
Michael L. Moody said he found the imagery in President Packer’s discourse to be beautiful.
“It’s one of the great metaphors in the hymnbook, I believe,” he said. “We are the lower lights, we are the ones who have to go out and rescue.”
'Master the Tempest is Raging'
In the October 1984 general conference, Elder Howard W. Hunter, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, told the story of Mary Ann Baker, who wrote the text for hymn No. 105, “Master, the Tempest is Raging.”
Baker was orphaned at an early age when her parents died of tuberculosis. But her Christian faith was shaken when she later lost her brother to the same disease. She questioned if God loved her.
With time, the Lord calmed the winds and waves of her life and her faith not only returned, it flourished, Elder Hunter said. At the invitation of her Baptist minister, the Rev. H.R. Palmer of Chicago, she recorded her testimony in an effort to help others tried by personal despair. Those words, which reference the New Testament story of the Savior calming the elements in Mark 4:36-41, are now the hymn, “Master, the Tempest is Raging.”
Elder Hunter, who later became the 14th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, promised everyone would see sudden storms and adversity in life. He encouraged members to not be fearful but to trust the Lord.
“Peace was on the lips and in the heart of the Savior no matter how fiercely the tempest was raging,” President Hunter said. “May it be so with us.”
“Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea or demons or men or whatever it be, no waters can swallow the ship where lies the Master of ocean and earth and skies,” President Hunter quoted. “They all shall sweetly obey (his) will. Peace, be still!”
More seafaring hymns
In 1871, Edward Hopper was pastor of a congregation of sailors at the Mariner’s Church at New York Harbor. He used nautical imagery to write the song, “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me,” hymn No. 104.
“Our life is a voyage, and we near the shore only as we near death,” Davidson wrote in her book. “Our only hope of safety is to turn to Jesus, the infallible pilot, who alone has the perfect ‘chart and compass.’ ”
In 1736, Charles Wesley, a Methodist preacher, was sailing from America home to England when his ship encountered a hurricane. He recorded in his journal that the sea washed away sheep, pigs and fowl, and men were continually pumping water out to keep the ship above water. The captain eventually cut down the mast to save the ship from sinking.
“I prayed for … faith in Jesus Christ, continually repeating his name, till I felt the virtue of it at last, and knew that I abode under the shadow of the Almighty,” Wesley wrote.
Wesley likely drew upon that experience to write hymn No. 102, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
Other hymns make small references to the sea, including “Count Your Many Blessings” (241), “Be Still My Soul” (124) and “I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger” (121). One mariner hymn not in the LDS hymnbook is “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” the official hymn of the U.S. Naval Academy.
President Thomas S. Monson served in the United States Navy near the end of World War II. Several times during his half century as a general authority, President Monson has urged church members to look to the lighthouse of the Lord as they sail seas of life.
“There is no fog so dense, no night so dark, no gale so strong, no mariner so lost but what its beacon can rescue. It beckons through the storms of life,” the prophet said during the April 2010 general conference. “The lighthouse of the Lord sends forth signals readily recognized and never failing.”
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