On This Calm & Silvery Bay
Somewhere in my house there is a piece of paper, an unintended consequence of a photograph inset in an article about Block Island, something that will show the Harbor Church when the tower, and only the tower, was solid green. It was the one section of the roof the contractor did not re-shingle in a year I cannot remember, the late 70s or early 80s I think.
It was like that for years, the elegant tower an oddly sore thumb, until, a time I simply cannot pinpoint, when the roof was done again, this time including the tower.
The photographs are annoying, my brother and his bride on the porch, a shot across the harbor with the Drug Store squarely in the way and another of those long shots of buildings and roofs, with the tower, and only the tower, showing on the other side of the National.
But I found lots of other things, all of them screaming out “Look at me, look at me,” or worse, “Read me, read me” and the great overall jumble of “File me, file me.” The last is simply never going to happen. To the dump with all of you I threaten, wondering how I managed to get through yet another winter without accomplishing this goal of sorting.
Every time I find the same things, and every year I am a step closer, truly I am, to making good on the dump threat. Sometimes I even find what I am seeking.
Tonight I found a photocopy of Safe Within the Vail and was totally derailed.
The words are carved on the grave of a friend’s father who died when we were in college, it was sung at the funeral of another classmate’s father some forty years later.
The story behind this now obscure hymn was told by Theron Brown and Hezekiah Butterworth in their 1906 “The Story of the Hymns and Tunes” in a section titled “Land Ahead” —
The burden of this hymn was suggested by the dying words of John Adams, one of the crew of the English ship Bounty who in 1789 mutinied, set the captain and officers adrift, and ran the vessel to a tropical island, where they burned her. In a few years vice and violence had decimated the wicked crew, who had exempted themselves from all divine and human restraint, until the last man alive was left with only native women and half-breed children for company. His true name was Alexander Smith, but he had changed it to John Adams.
The situation forced the lonely Englishman to a sense of solemn responsibility, and in bitter remorse, he sought to retrieve his wasted life, and spent the rest of his exile in repentance and repentant works. He found a Bible in one of the dead seamen’s chests, studied it, and organized a community on the Christian plan. A new generation grew up around him, reverencing him as governor, teacher, preacher, and judge, and speaking his language — and he was wise enough to exercise his authority for the common good, and never abuse it.
Pitcairn’s Island became “the Paradise of the Pacific.” It has not yet belied its name. Besides its opulence of rural beauty and natural products, its inhabitants, now the third generation from the “mutineer missionary,” are a civilized community without the vices of civilization. There is no licentiousness, no profanity, no Sabbath-breaking, no rum or tobacco — and no sickness.
John Adams died in 1829 — after an island residence of forty years. In his extreme age, while he lay waiting for the end, he was asked how he felt in view of the final voyage. “Land ahead!” murmured the old sailor — and his last words were, “Rounding the Cape — into the harbor.”
That the veteran’s death-song should be perpetuated in sacred music is not strange.
Land ahead! Its fruits are waving
O’er the hills of fadeless green;
And the living waters laving
Shores where heavenly forms are seen.
Rock and storms I’ll fear no more,
When on that eternal shore;
Drop the anchor! Furl the sail!
I am safe within the veil.
Onward, bark! The cape I’m rounding;
See, the blessed wave their hands;
Hear the harps of God resounding
From the bright immortal bands.
There let go the anchor riding
On this calm and silvery bay
Seaward fast the tide is gliding
Shores in sunlight fade away
Now we’re safe from all temptation
All the Storms of life are past
Praise the Rock of our Salvation
We are safe at home at last.
The authorship of the hymn is credited to Rev. E. Adams — whether or not a descendent of the Island Patriarch we have no information. It was written about 1869.
The ringing melody that bears the words was composed by John Miller Evans... the original air — with a simple accompaniment — was harmonized by Hubert P. Main, and published in Winnowed Hymns in 1873.
It comes as no surprise that one of the comments reads “This song was used at all my grandparents, parents and my only brother’s funeral.”
We were lucky, we learned it over the winter of 1961 in preparation for the joyous celebration of the coming summer, the Tercentenary Year. We sang it with the gusto of kids who didn’t know they weren’t a proper chorus, clad in our calico frocks and bonnets while the boys, in their fishermen’s black, hauled a dory off stage, pulling a rope attached to a piano leg.