On 10 April 1912, the RMS Titanic, a British passenger liner operated by the White Star Line, set sail on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York. On 14-15 April 1912, at around midnight, the luxury liner hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean. Tragically, in less than three hours, the ship sank, claiming the lives of more than 1,500 people, and leaving 705 survivors to tell the story of the disaster that had occurred.
The 19th-century Christian hymn, “Nearer My God, to Thee,” is supposedly the last song that the RMS Titanic’s string ensemble played before the ship sank into the ocean in the early morning hours of 15 April 1912. The ageless hymn was written by the English poet and Unitarian hymn writer, Sarah Flower Adams, at her home “Sunnybank,” in Loughton, Essex, England in 1841. It retells the story of Jacob’s dream as recorded in Genesis 28:11-12 in the Old Testament of the Bible. It is reported that the hymn was also sung by the doomed crew and passengers of the SS Valencia as it sank off the Canadian coast in 1906.
“Nearer My God, to Thee,” which is hymn No. 100 in the current hymnbook used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, might well be said to be the Christian hymn of the ages. The hymn has been sung by church congregations and choirs of various faiths, school choirs, soloists, and entertainers in many different languages around the world. Its serene lyrics – “Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to thee” – can bring peace and comfort to troubled souls especially during the tumultuous times in which we now live.
On 7 August 2020, joined virtually by approximately 800 performers from 55 countries, Brigham Young University’s male a cappella group, Vocal Point, released a new music video of “Nearer My God, to Thee” in a “contemporary and inclusive fashion.” The original Latin lyrics and arrangement were written by James Stevens. As of mid-August 2020, the video has garnered more than 141,000 views on YouTube alone.
Weneta Kosmala, a professional violinist from California and a loyal Vocal Point fan, is not a Latter-day Saint but she immediately accepted the invitation to participate in the video. She told the Church News, “Something this uplifting is exactly what we need right now.” She further said that watching herself perform virtually with hundreds of other musicians from different backgrounds and nationalities “was amazing — it was thrilling to be a part of this experience.”
Kosmala’s friend and fellow musician, Barbara Bell, wrote, “I loved seeing and hearing the final product; so beautiful and the lyrics are even more meaningful while being apart from everyone and feeling nearer to God through this wonderful arrangement.”
McKay Crockett, Vocal Point’s artistic director, has been a longtime fan of his predecessor James Stevens’ “inspired arrangement” of the beloved hymn. In fact, six years ago Vocal Point collaborated with the BYU Men’s Chorus to create a music video of the hymn as arranged by Stevens. That music video has since been viewed more than 27 million times, and countless fans have requested the sheet music for Stevens’ arrangement. Also, on 14 August 2016, The Redfourth Chorus from Upper Hill School in Nairobi, Kenya, released a music video cover of Vocal Point’s rendition of “Nearer My God, to Thee.”
Crockett told the Church News that the arrangement hit him “in a way that few musical pieces ever have.” A few months ago, as the pandemic traversed the globe, Stevens and Crockett talked about the idea of presenting the song in a virtual choir style and including “guest performers” from around the world. Crockett said, “From that moment on, the stars have aligned — and through the hard work of so many, the piece came to life in an extraordinary way. . .. We sent an open invitation to anyone who wanted to participate. We got a great response.”
Would-be video participants were sent user-friendly instructions on how to access a designated website and record and upload either instrumental or vocal tracks. Soon hundreds of recordings were arriving. A team of video and audio editors began pulling it all together. Rows of virtual musicians were soon being captured performing the hymn alongside Vocal Point members in a 3-dimensional cathedral.
Stevens said, “It was amazing to see the response. There were older people and young kids. It was so much fun to see each video and see the variety.” People from places as far away as Croatia, Sri Lanka, Argentina, and many other parts of the world wanted to participate in the project.
Ben Fales, who helped produce the project, said, “The power of music is amazing, and when it is coupled with our testimonies about God, it is exponentially amazing. What a blessing technology is as it allows us to connect with our brothers and sisters around the world in such an intimate way.”
Stevens added, “It’s so nice to come together with people from all over the world and celebrate something we can all agree on, which is peace. For those who are believers, it brings us together in unity.”