Sarah Flower Adams belonged to a circle of Unitarian radicals which included Harriet Taylor and Harriet Martineau; “Nearer my God to Thee” is her most famous hymn. First published in Rev. William J. Fox’s Unitarian collection, Hymns and Anthems (1841), it became so popular as to be included in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861) where it was set to J.B. Dykes’ “Horbury.” Many others set it to music, including Arthur Sullivan (“Propior Deo,” 1872) and American Lowell Mason (“Bethany,” 1859). A long list of adults have cited this as a favorite, including Queen Victoria, Theodore Roosevelt, and Edward VII (McCutchan, Our Hymnody 380). It was even said, perhaps apocryphally, to have been played by the band while the Titanic sank. Despite—or perhaps because of—this infatuation by adults, the hymn was the thirteenth most frequently appearing hymn in children’s hymn books of my study. It is based on the story of Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28: 10-22). The hymn presents “a very powerful mixture of human suffering illuminated by the practice of the presence of God” as J. R. Watson describes (An Annotated Anthology 282). The suffering is that of being a wanderer, lacking a home, where the only bed to lay his head is a stone, the stone symbolic of his “stony griefs” (v. 4). Despite the sorrow of the situation, bright concepts balance the dreary: “darkness be over,” “out of my stony griefs,” and “so by my woes” are all balanced by “bright with thy praise,” “in mercy given,” and “Upward I fly.” It is a powerful story for children and adults alike.
More discussion on this hymn can be found in Chapter 3, British Hymn Books for Children.