The excerpt below appears in What a Friend They Had in Jesus: The Theological Visions of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Hymn Writers, by Harry T. Cook (2013)
Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me
Edward Hopper, 1871
Jesus, Savior, pilot me
Over life’s tempestuous sea;
Unknown waves before me roll.
Hiding rock, and treach’rous shoal;
Chart and compass come from Thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
As a mother stills her child,
Thou canst hush the ocean wild;
Boist’rous waves obey Thy will
When Thou say’st to them, “Be still;”
Wondrous Sov’reign of the sea? ...
When at last I near the shore,
And the fearful breakers roar
’Twixt me and the peaceful rest,
Then, while leaning on Thy breast,
May I hear Thee say to me
“Fear not, I will pilot thee.”[/one_half][one_half]
Edward Hopper (1816–88) was born, lived, and worked in New York City for all of his life, save eleven years in Greenville and Sag Harbor (Long Island), New York. He was a graduate of New York University and of the Union Theological Seminary, also of New York. He was for eighteen years the minister of the Presbyterian Church of the Sea and Land in lower Manhattan that had been founded as a mission for mariners, who then were numerous around the southern tip of that borough. The edifice was built in 1819 when Hopper was an infant. The hymn’s first appearance was anonymous entry in the Sailor’s Magazine in the same year as it was written. It was spotted early on by the New York composer, conductor and music store owner John E . Gould, who set the still-anonymous text to music.
Sometime later the secretary of the Seaman’s Friend Society, Samuel Hall of Newark, N.J., asked Hopper, a natural source, for a hymn text to celebrate an anniversary of the society. Hopper sent him the text of Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me. The hymn may first have been sung by the congregation of the Broadway Tabernacle on May 10, 1880. Over the years and decades, it has been reprinted in dozens of Sunday school and gospel hymnals including a mid-twentieth century Congregation Church hymnal, a late twentieth century United Methodist hymnal and a 1988 Free Will Baptist hymn collection. It became known that Hopper was its author when the text was read aloud — perhaps by Hopper himself or at the very least in his presence — at a sea-men’s society meeting.
While the hymn text was probably written based on the stories with which seamen had regaled Hopper and with their nautical labors in mind, those who sang it down the years began to take it as a metaphor for life with its “tempestuous seas,” “unknown waves,” and “treacherous shoals.” The farther along one gets in the hymn the more metaphorical it becomes, with the sea pilot becoming a mother comforting her child and an allusion to Matt 8:23–27 (Jesus calming the waves amid his disciples’ fear). Finally, in the third stanza Hopper turned to what may have been on his mind all along, the coming of death. There Jesus, the pilot, is to replace the mother stilling her child, holding the dying one and leading him into a peaceful death.
The hymn originally had six stanzas. Those that appear in most contemporary hymnals are the first, the fifth and the sixth. Others speak of “the Apostles’ fragile bark” struggling “with the billows dark,” a more direct reference to the Matthew 8 text; and of a reminder that, when things are going just so very well, it is wise to remember just then the potential need of a pilot:
Though the sea be smooth and bright,
Sparkling with the stars at night.
And my ship’s path be ablaze
With the light of halcyon days,
Still I know my need of Thee;
Jesus, Savior, pilot me.
Hopper, friend of seafarers, must have known what nautical pilots do. They do not guide ships over “tempestuous seas” or “oceans wild” nor yet over “boist’rous wave.” Rather, they assist ships’ masters in negotiating the entrance to harbors that may have a “hiding rock” or two, or a “treach’rous shoal.” But the pilot guides; he does not command and does not order maneuvers. Hopper’s text does not ask Jesus to command or order. It asks Jesus to pilot, suggesting that the master of whatever ship will listen to suggestions and information, or he will not, finally having his own self to blame if he ignores the pilot’s guidance. Perhaps he read Erasmus on the subject of free will, to the effect that one may spurn that which will save him.
Praise for the book:
“Important and heart-warming … Cook’s keen insights into the most familiar of old-time gospel hymns … help you do theology like a grownup.”
—Robin Meyers, author of Saving Jesus from the Church
“A compelling look at centuries of Christian theology and practice, at how particular hymns have shaped American faith and religious thought.”
—Richard Webster, Director of Music and Organist at Trinity Church, Boston
“A call to integrity in worship … This exciting, penetrating and provocative study explores the theology we sing, which re-enforces the dated and pre-modern theology from which the Christian faith seeks to escape.”
—John Shelby Spong, author of Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World