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This manuscript draft of the hymn ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’, reproduced and explained by Moncure Conway in his Centenary History of the South Place Society (1894), represents a rare glimpse into the inner thoughts of someone typically viewed as religiously devout; into the story of a hymn taken as quintessentially pious, even though it was born out of growing scepticism. It is a reminder of the challenges faced when looking back through history in gaining a true impression of the beliefs (and doubts) of those who came before us, especially during those centuries when the price of unbelief could be high. It is also a touching tribute to those communities which fostered free discussion and allowed for the evolution of ideas, including those – as at South Place – which came to be centres of humanist thought and community.

Nearer My God to Thee was said to be the last song played as the Titanic went down, and was composed by the Flower sisters, who were closely connected with the South Place Ethical Society. The sisters were the daughters of radical unitarian printer Benjamin Flower, and had moved to London in 1820. There, they were part of a vibrant and liberal community which included Harriet Martineau, Harriet Taylor, and John Stuart Mill. William Johnson Fox, minister at South Place Chapel (then still a unitarian congregation) was at the group’s centre, and became the sisters’ guardian when their father died in 1829. It was to Fox, in 1827, that Sarah Flower wrote to express her struggle with growing religious doubts, and to seek his guidance. In conversation with the poet Robert Browning, Sarah wrote, she had found herself unable to refute ideas which challenged religious teaching. ‘My mind refused to bring forward argument’, she said, and ‘the consciousness that I have not examined as far as in me lies, weighs heavily upon me’. Though she would ‘give worlds to be a sincere believer’ in the religion in which she had been raised, Sarah Flower found that she could not. ‘Out of such pangs,’ Fox’s successor Moncure Conway would later write, ‘was born the hymn… which Christians throughout the world are singing in different tunes, unconscious as yet that it is really a hymn of their pilgrimage from the old faith to the new’. In Conway’s reading, lines like ‘So by my woes to be/ Nearer, my God, to thee’ read not as evidence of devotion, but of the slow relinquishing of ideas once left unquestioned, and the difficulty (for some) of doing so. Later, some ethical societies would produce humanist song books, removing all mention of gods and celebrating instead the virtues of nature and humanity.

Image: ‘Manuscript of ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ from the Original Draft of the Hymn sent by the Author to Mr. Fox’ in Centenary History of the South Place Society by Moncure Conway (1894)

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