Skip to Content

Faith on the decks of the Titanic

In every large tragedy New Yorkers’ religious faith has been a key element in the city’s perseverance and recovery.

By Print Preview

The NYC Yiddish newspaper Der Groyser Kundes/Big Stick portrayed the musicians on the Titanic as defying death by playing the song "Nehnter tsu dir, mayn Got" (Nearer, my God, to Thee). April 26, 1912. NY Public Library.

In every large tragedy New Yorkers' religious faith has been a key element in the city’s perseverance and recovery.

On June 14, 1904 the General Slocum sank in the East River while carrying down the whole congregation of St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church from the Lower East Side to a church picnic on Long Island. An estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board died. The General Slocum disaster was the New York area's worst disaster in terms of loss of life until the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper reported, “One of the survivors, dripping wet and very much excited, took pains to tell an Eagle reporter that the musicians had displayed marked heroism at the time of the panic. They played up to the last moment, then, abandoning their instruments, they hurried to the upper deck and began handing out to the frightened women and children the life preservers which they tore from the racks.

People of all faiths pulled together to help the Lutherans in their grief. Reverend Father Donahue of St. James Catholic Church comforted and administered last rites to forty-five people who were brought to one of the islands in the river.

Signup for Journey newsletter!

Privacy by SafeUnsubscribe

On February 3, 1943 Clark Poling, son of the head of the Bowery Mission, and three other chaplains heroically rescued troops on the sinking SS Dorchester which had been hit with torpedoes by German submarines. Poling and Rabbi Alexander Goode, Father John P. Washington, and the Reverend George L. Fox (Methodist) calmed the troops and organized their boarding of lifeboats. Running out of boats, they took off their life jackets and gave them to the remaining troops. As the ship sank into the water, the chaplains prayed and sang the Navy hymn, “Eternal Father Strong to Save.”

On September 11, 2001 many people relied on their religious faith to guide and help them. Two preacher kids from the Lower East Side helped to rescue one of their teachers when the Towers collapsed upon them. There were many other such stories. We can hardly forget that Victim #0001 was a Catholic priest Father Mychal Judge.

The RMS Titanic

As we come to the 100 Anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, we thought that it would be useful to remind ourselves of the role that religious faith has had during the catastrophe and, in the aftermath, of its impact on New York City’s moral culture. We have excerpted British poet and songwriter Steve Turner’s The Band That Played On The extraordinary story of the 8 musicians who went down with the Titanic. Turner has made frequent appearances at art gatherings here in the city. In addition to the Titanic book, Turner has written an extraordinarily good book on Johnny Cash.

On the evening of April 18th in the New York Evening World Carlos F. Hurd wrote the first article with eyewitness accounts of the sinking of Titanic: “The ship’s string band gathered in the saloon, near the end, and played ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

Why the band came to be playing in these circumstances is a question that will never be satisfactorily answered. ..The other possibility is that the idea came from band leader Wallace Hartley and was supported by the bandsmen. By all accounts he was a man of faith, character, and moral strength. At Sunday school and later at church, the importance of sacrifice and putting the needs of others first would have been stressed. We know that he had discussed what he would do in the face of death and so he was more prepared than most.

The scoop about the band playing the hymn hit the streets because Pulitzer had a reporter vacationing on the rescue ship.

He apparently believed that music could be more powerful than physical force in bringing order to chaos. John Carr, the Celtic bandsman, had played on ships with Hartley, and in April 1912 told The New York Times: “I don’t suppose he waited to be sent for, but after finding how dangerous the situation was he probably called his men together and began playing. I know that he often said that music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”

All the band members had been raised as churchgoers—Bricoux, Krins, and Clarke as Catholics, Hume as a Congregationalist, Woodward and Hartley as Methodists, Brailey and Taylor as Anglicans. Harley and Taylor had sung in choirs, and Hume played his violin in church.

40,000 people lined the streets in Wallace Hartley's small town for his funeral.

Hartley was an obvious choice as bandleader. Five feet ten inches tall with dark hair, blue eyes, and a winning smile, he’d had extensive experience as a musician both on land and on sea and had worked with many of the best players in the business. He was also a man of fine moral standing. Raised as a Methodist, he exhibited the diligence, honesty, and sobriety characteristic of a Christian denomination that had transformed working-class life in Britain. His father Albion Hartley was a prominent member of the Bethel Independent Methodist Chapel in the mill town of Colne, Lancashire County, England.

The band leader on the Titanic would very likely have worshipped at Methodist churches in New York during his many visits involving weekend stopovers.

The reports of the band playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” [as the Titanic sank] were enthusiastically received. The gist of the song is that whatever hardships befall us, they can only serve to bring us closer to God. In terms of the Titanic disaster, the image was of people being dragged to the depths of the sea and yet, paradoxically, scaling the heights of heaven. It was based in part on the story of Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:10-22), in which he sees “a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” It may have been a particular favorite at the Bethel Chapel in Colne [where the band leader became a Christian] because Jacob marked the spot where he had the dream with a stone “and he called the name of that place Bethel.”

Nearer, my God, to Thee.
Nearer to Thee!
Even though it be a cross
That raiseth me;
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee
Nearer to Thee!

Darkness comes over me…
Thee let my way appear
Steps unto heaven,
All that Thou sendest me
In mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

(see audio recording at end of story)

It was the best-loved hymn of Hartley and had been introduced to the Bethel Chapel by his father, Albion Hartley, when he was choirmaster. Ellwand Moody, Hartley’s friend [and fellow ship musician], told the Leeds Mercury in April 1912: “I remember one day I asked him what he would do if he were ever on a sinking ship and he replied, ‘I don’t think I would do better than play “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” or “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

It was also the favorite hymn of many in New York. President McKinley supposedly used the words as a form of prayer as he lay dying after being shot by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York, in September 1901.

Signup for Journey newsletter!

Privacy by SafeUnsubscribe

One of the most dramatic accounts of the final moments came from thirty-four-year-old coal trimmer Thomas Patrick “Paddy” Dillon, who was interviewed by a local newspaper in Plymouth, England, after arriving back on the Red Star Line ship Lapland on April 28. He said he was one of the last to leave the ship and that the poop deck was by then at an angle of around sixty degrees and after a second explosion the bow “seemed to bob up and then break clean off like a piece of carrot.” The musicians had been playing on the deck, he said, but they then slid off the deck along with Captain Smith.

“There was one musician left,” he said. “He was the violinist and was playing the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ The notes of this music were the last thing I heard before I went off the poop and felt myself going headlong into the icy water with the engines and machinery buzzing in my ears.”

Another survivor interviewed at the same time said: “They began to render hymn tunes and continued to do to the last. While playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ the water was washing over their feet, and in a very short time they disappeared beneath the waves.”

Alice Leader

New York pediatric doctor Alice Leader, who left at 1:15 on lifeboat 8, wrote a letter the next day on the ship Carpathia in which she said, “I shall never forget the sight of that beautiful boat as she went down, the orchestra playing to the last, the lights burning until they were extinguished by the waves. It sounds so unreal, like a scene on a stage.”

The evidence for “Nearer, My God, to Thee” being the band’s final song seems overwhelming. A reporter from the Witney Gazette, who interviewed many of the 167 survivors brought back to Plymouth on the Lapland, concluded: “Practically all of the survivors agree that the band played hymns and not ‘ragtime’ tunes. After his fellow musicians had been washed away the violinist continued playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ until he went under with the ship.”

Dr. Ernest Stires, preaching at St. Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue, and with at least one Titanic survivor in the congregation, said, “The disaster has made of the whole human race a sorrowing family. The band played ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ on its knees, sinking down into the depths. Today I hear from them the heights, for they died a death worth dying, to teach us how to live a life worth living."

"Nearer my God to Thee"

To read all of Steve Turner's book: amazon   barnes and noble

Signup for Journey newsletter!

Privacy by SafeUnsubscribe

Sign up for Journey newsletter!

Privacy by SafeUnsubscribe

Upcoming Features