Adams, Sarah Flower (1805–1848)

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Adams, Sarah Flower (1805–1848)

English poet and hymn writer whose "Nearer, my God, to Thee" was played to comfort passengers on the sinking Titanic. Name variations: Sally; signed her articles S.Y. Born Sarah Flower at Great Harlow, Essex, England, on February 22, 1805; died in August 1848; one of two daughters of Benjamin and Eliza (Gould) Flower; sister of Eliza Flower (1803–1846); married William Bridges Adams (a noted inventor), in 1834.

Selected writings:

Vivia Perpetua (a lyrical drama, 1841); "Nearer, my God, to Thee" (hymn, 1840).

Sarah Flower Adams, who wrote religious poetry and a number of hymns, is probably best remembered for "Nearer, my God, to Thee," heard over the icy deep as the ill-fated Titanic took some 1,500 passengers to a watery grave on April 14, 1912. Pastor John Harper, who had volunteered to remain on board the sinking ship because of an insufficient number of lifeboats, requested that the orchestra play the hymn to lift the spirits of those left topside. The words that provided comfort and strength to those awaiting certain death that night were, ironically, the product of the spiritual uncertainty that plagued Sarah Adams throughout her own short life.

Adams was strongly influenced by her father, Benjamin Flower, the controversial publisher of a radical magazine, the Cambridge Intelligencer. She and her sister Eliza Flower were educated at home, in an atmosphere of strict religious observance. When their mother died in childbirth, their father continued to look after the educational needs of his daughters, often taking them with him on his travels around the country. As strict as Benjamin Flower was about Bible study and prayer, he held extremely tolerant religious views, often contributing articles to the Unitarian magazine Monthly Repository and assisting clergy with Sunday services, regardless of the denomination. He loved to engage in long religious dialogues with his friends and encouraged his daughters to accept nothing and question everything.

Perhaps as a result of her father's liberal views, Sarah found herself facing a spiritual crisis at the age of 20. In a letter to the minister of her Unitarian church, W.J. Fox, she expressed her increasing ambivalence. "I would give worlds to be a sincere believer, to go to my Bible as I used to, but I cannot." When her father died in 1829, Adams suffered a complete breakdown, which curtailed her writing for four years.

After her recovery, she wrote articles, stories, and essays for the Monthly Repository, as her father had done. An article, written from Luxembourg where she was visiting the galleries and gardens of the city, revealed something of her own renewal of faith. "It is in the divine spirit of love, swelling in our own hearts, that we must seek and find our God," she wrote. "He is a God of hand, and not a God afar off."

Flower, Eliza (1803–1846)

English composer. Born in Essex, England, in 1803; died in 1846; eldest daughter of Benjamin Flower and Eliza (Gould) Flower; sister of Sarah Flower Adams (1805–1848).

Eliza Flower published political songs and music to Hymns and Anthems (1841–46) for South Place Chapel; these included compositions for words by her sister, poet Sarah Flower Adams.

In 1834, Sarah married a fellow contributor to the Repository, William Adams, and took a brief detour into the theater. Through a friend of her minister, she auditioned and was selected for the role of Lady Macbeth, performed at the Little Richmond Theater to the delight of critics. She planned another performance for the touring company at Bath, but was stricken by ill health again. Her disappointment set off another period of depression that lasted for three years.

Returning to her writing in 1840, Sarah produced her longest work Vivia Perpetua, a dramatic poem about the early life of the Christians, in which there are further signs of her lingering spiritual struggle. At the first public reading of the work, it is believed that Adams was so overcome that she broke down and sobbed. She later contributed to a hymnal her sister Eliza was compiling for the South Place Chapel. One of her 13 paeans for the book, dated November 1840, was "Nearer, my God, to Thee."

Devastated by the death of Eliza from consumption in 1846, Sarah Adams died from the same disease two years later, in August 1848. She was buried with her father and sister in the nonconformist cemetery in Harlow. One of her own hymns, "He sendeth sun, He sendeth shower," was sung at her funeral.

The hymn "Nearer, my God, to Thee" went on to achieve international recognition. It was a favorite of Queen Victoria , King Edward VII, and American president William McKinley. It was also played at the funeral of Baptist minister John Harper, who had asked the band to play it aboard the Titanic. He too lost his life that night. After seeing his daughter safely into a lifeboat, he gave up his own place to a woman struggling in the water.


Smith, Susan V. "The 'Titanic' Hymn," in This England. Vol. 18, no. 3. Autumn 1985, pp. 20–22.