Hymns about the Sea and Maritime Metaphors

Scientific Essay, 2008

16 Pages



Where does your fragile bark take you?[1] Where do you find shelter in the time of storm ?[2] Who will be your pilot when you sail along toward the harbour light?[3]

The above images ‘bark’, ‘storm’, ‘pilot’ and ‘harbour’ are taken from four out of a total of presently 206 hymns with a nautical theme that form the basis for this study. They are part of a whole repertoire of maritime metaphors traditionally referred to as the ‘sea topos’. The Greek term ‘topos’, plural: ‘topoi’, literally means ‘places’. Topoi are, in modern literary theory, a fixed way of thinking, they are preconceived ideas and cultural commonplaces which have been used and re-used from classical antiquity to post-modern literature. They are part of our tradition, just like handed-down archetypes. According to Blumenberg these images, metaphors, symbols and stories are survival strategies which we use to orient and position ourselves in the world. For him, the sea topos asks the basic questions about life and has – like other topoi – the function to assist human understanding about the world, life, and death.[4]

The sea topos contains a whole collection of nautical words and phrases. Often, it is enough just to name one nautical element to evoke the whole nautical ensemble.[5] The sea topos goes back as far as Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid and includes the ship, the ocean with its waves and tides, storms and calms, the home port, the final destination, death, and salvation.[6] Sea images are not just present in art, architecture, literature and politics, but also in theology. Noah, Jonah, the silencing of the storm, for example, are amongst the most widely known bible stories. Hymns about the sea, though, go beyond paraphrasing and interpreting biblical images from the Old and New Testament. They draw on a number of different traditions, thus being a new and fruitful source for maritime metaphors.

Sea Hymns

Hymnology, the scholarly study of religious song, is an interdisciplinary, academic field encompassing elements from a variety of faculties, such as music, history, social studies, literature and linguistics, and which, for that same reason, is able to approach the maritime question from a new and different angle. Hymns are a special form of poetry and play a central role in worship. The words put into the singer’s mouth reveal a great deal about contemporary attitudes and beliefs. My study deals with maritime hymns and is based on an analysis of 206 hymns from German, English, and American hymn books.

For centuries Christians have sung hymns with a sea theme, but the individual hymns can differ greatly with regard to their maritime content. Some present only one nautical element while others give a complete account of a sea journey comparing it to the stages in life, e.g.:

Jesu, Lover of my soul,

Let me to thy Bosom fly,

While the gathering waters roll,

While the tempest still is high;

Hide me, O my Saviour, hide,

Till the storm of life is past;

Safe into the haven guide,

O receive my soul at last.[7]

The vast number and sheer variety of maritime hymns can sometimes drown the reader in a veritable rip-tide of nautical imagery, leaving him or her cast adrift on an endless ocean of sea metaphors with no safe harbour in sight and nowhere to set anchor. In order not to drown, you can moor yourself to the following facts:

My study is based on

- 116 German hymns from 64 Protestant and Catholic hymn books, including six naval hymn books

- 32 English hymns from 9 Church of England and Catholic English hymn books, and 5 naval ‘Hymn Cards’

- 58 American hymns from 37 hymns American hymn books from a variety of Christian denominations, including Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and four Armed Forces hymnals.

The oldest available hymn book with a maritime hymn dates back to 1605,[8] the most recent was published in 2000.[9] The hymns were categorized as ‘maritime’ if they contained at least one nautical lexeme or could be related to one of the four major semantic maritime fields, i.e. the sea, the ship and its parts, wind/storm and/or the port.

In order to interpret each maritime hymn, it was not sufficient just to focus on individual hymns. Whether or not a hymn is to be read metaphorically or non-metaphorically also depends on its purpose, the context it appears in and on the group it targets.

Maritime hymns appear a) in general hymn books written for any kind of church congregation and b) in specialized hymn books intended for seafaring people, i.e. voyagers or people working on or around the sea, such as fishermen, sailors, or naval crews. These specialized hymn books not only promised more results with regards to their use of maritime imagery but they also exclusively presented hymns dealing with a specific sea problem, e.g. during a flood, when shipwrecked, or before, during, and after a real storm.

To gain more insight into maritime hymns from specialized hymn books, we will now have a closer look at the navy and naval hymns because, unlike for example voyagers, the navy is a) a clearly defined target group, b) it has been regularly issued with its own hymnals or ‘hymn cards’, and c) has to face the dangers of war in addition to natural dangers at sea, three aspects that make it exemplary to research on the sea topos.

Hymns for the Navy

The navy is one of the occupational groups whose existence revolves entirely around the sea, and which, at the same time, has always been closely connected to the church.

In Germany a number of naval hymn books were compiled and produced especially for naval soldiers. Germany’s naval history is relatively short compared to that of England or other European countries as a proper ‘German Navy’ did not evolve until 1848 when the Frankfurt National Assembly decided to buy 10 ships as support for the Danish naval blockade.[10] It took another seven years until in Hamburg a protestant hymn and prayer book for men working on sea ships (Evangelisches Andachts- und Gebetbuch zum Gebrauch auf Seeschiffen)[11] was published. Although that hymn book was not a military publication per se, navy regulations demanded that each naval vessel should carry three copies of it. The words from the preface warn the sailors not to forget that their destiny is not of this world but is the eternal port which they will reach if they follow the morning star.[12]

In 1871, the former Prussian Navy (‘Preußische Marine’), which in 1867 had evolved into the ‘Navy of the Northern German Federation (‘Marine des Norddeutschen Bundes’) now became the ‘Imperial Navy’ (‘Kaiserliche Marine’). For Wilhelm II, the Imperial Navy was the epitome of nationalism and a symbol for the connection between Christianity, monarchical patriotism and military power. The Kaiser’s love for ‘his’ Navy was reflected in the fact that a first hymn book exclusively for the Navy was published in 1886, a book which was actually just a special edition of the army hymn book published a year earlier, to which 20 hymns were added, 10 of which were maritime hymns. That hymn book was the first of 5 Protestant (1886, 1905, 1907, 1926/1930, 1940) and 6 Catholic naval hymn books (1893, 1900, 1903, 1906, 1935, 1941).

Interestingly, the Catholic hymn book from 1941 features virtually no maritime hymns, the only aspect that immediately identifies it as naval being the anchor on its cover. The Protestant book makes some references to the sea, but nevertheless fewer than its predecessors. Why? The German Catholic Chaplaincy’s aim was to focus exclusively on Christian values and to address the naval sailors as young men, not as soldiers.[13] So, anything alluding to war and war at sea was left out.

The maritime hymn central to the Protestant naval hymn books used to be one of the most famous German sea hymns and appeared, until 1940, in almost every naval hymn book. It is Johann Daniel Falk’s Wie mit grimmigem Unverstand, 1812 (‘How, in fierce ignorance’) which describes the unpredictable movement of waves in a storm, a situation where there is no hope for rescue. But at the end of each verse, the refrain Christ, Kyrie, join us on the sea reminds the sailors of the One watching over them. It refers to the New Testament story with Jesus walking on the water. The men exposed to the dangers of the sea used to know these lines by heart and could sing them when they had to face rough times. After WWII and the restructuring of the German Armed Forces in 1957, the German Navy was not issued with a navy-exclusive book but was given the same hymn books as the German Army.

To date, the churches in Germany have been adamant to avoid any mentioning of war-related issues in their hymn books so that no comparisons would be drawn between the post-war Bundeswehr and the Army or Navy under the Nazi regime. The result is that in the current hymn book, no issues addressing difficult situations the soldiers might face when serving abroad, are raised, and only a couple of maritime hymns are included. In 2007, I conducted a survey amongst ten naval chaplains serving on German naval bases and on frigates asking them, amongst other questions:

1) according to which criteria they selected hymns for their services
2) whether it was important to the sailors to sing maritime hymns, and
3) whether there were any ‘hits’ amongst the maritime hymns and what they were.


[1] Mother Dear, O Pray for Me. Words: I. B. Woodbury, 1850.

[2] A Shelter in the Time of Storm. Words: Vernon Charlesworth, 1880.

[3] Who Will our Pilot Be? Words: Lizzie DeArmond, 1907.

[4] Blumenberg, 1979, 9ff.

[5] Hönig, 2000, p. 11.

[6] ibid., p. 15.

[7] Jesu, Lover of my Soul. Charles Wesley, 1740.

[8] Ein ander new Opus Geistlicher Deutscher Lieder D. Mart. Lutheri: Niclai Hermanni. Frankfurt/Oder, 1605.

[9] Katholisches Gebet- und Gesangbuch für die Soldatinnen und Soldaten in der deutschen Bundeswehr. (Berlin, 2000).

[10] Hormann, 1999.

[11] I would like to thank Andreas Wittenberg for letting me use the draft of his PhD dissertation on military hymn books which will be published in 2009. Here, Chapter B.4.7

[12] Evangelisches Andachts- und Gebetbuch zum Gebrauch auf Seeschiffen 1885, p. III.

[13] ibid.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Hymns about the Sea and Maritime Metaphors
University of Greenwich  (Greenwich Maritime Institute)
5th International Congress of Maritime History (IMEHA2008)
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This paper was presented at the 5th International Congress of Maritime History 2008 in Greenwich, London.
Hymns, Maritime, Metaphors
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Dr. Ariane Slater (Author), 2008, Hymns about the Sea and Maritime Metaphors, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/139405


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