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Maritime LDS hymns offer hope for surviving life's storms

Published: Thursday, Dec. 6 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

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.”

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