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A Song on Christmas Eve: A Story About Ira Sankey

by Grace MacMullen (1922-1981). Used with permission.

One of my favorite Christmas stories is about the sweet singer Ira D. Sankey, who led the music for so many D.L. Moody's campaigns, and who wrote many beautiful songs including the classic gospel solo, "The Ninety and Nine."

The year was 1876, and Sankey was traveling on a steamboat up the Delaware River on Christmas Eve. Travelers on such a holiday, seemingly cut adrift in a world where everyone else is celebrating with loved ones, often seem to cling together making a circle of warmth in a waiting room, in a plane, or in an almost deserted restaurant.

It was such a journey. On the deck were gathered a number of passengers, looking out at the calm, starlit night. Someone said, "Mr. Sankey is aboard!" and immediately there were cries of "Let him sing for us! Let's ask Mr. Sankey to sing!"

He stood leaning against one of the great funnels of the boat. Before he began, he stood for a moment as if in prayer, deciding what to sing. He wanted to sing a Christmas song, but somehow the words of the Shepherd Song were what came to his heart.

"Saviour, like a shepherd lead us,
Much we need thy tender care.
In thy pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use thy folds prepare."

Among the listeners, there was a deep stillness. The words telling the sweet story of God's love for wandering men, and the beautiful melody floated out across the deck, across the water, into the night. Every heart was stirred.

At the end of the song, there was an almost audible response. One man stepped forth—a rough-looking man.

To Sankey, he said, "Did you ever serve in the Union Army?"

"Yes," answered Sankey. "In the spring of 1860."

"Can you remember if you were doing picket duty on a bright moonlight night in 1862?"

"Yes, I do," answered Sankey, with surprise. "Were you...?"

"I did, too, but I was serving in the Confederate Army. When I saw you standing at your post, I said to myself, 'That fellow will never get away from here alive.' I raised my musket and took aim. I was in the shadow, completely hidden, while you walked in full moonlight.

"At that instant, you began to sing—just as a moment ago. The song was 'Saviour, like a shepherd lead us...'

"The music reached my heart. I took my finger off the trigger. 'I'll wait until the end of the song,' I said to myself. 'I can't miss him, and I can shoot him afterwards.'

"As you sang, you reached the place where it says,
"'We are Thine, do Thou befriend us,'
"'Be the guardian of our way...'

"I could hear every word perfectly, and how the memories came to my heart! I began to think of my childhood and my mother. She loved God. She had sung that song to me many times. But she died all too soon, otherwise I think my life might have been different.

"At the end of the song, I could not raise my musket again. It was impossible for me to take aim, though you still stood in the bright moonlight, a perfect target.

"Then I thought of the Lord. I looked at you and thought, 'The Lord who was able to save that man from certain death must surely be great and mighty.' My arm dropped to my side and I cannot tell you all the things I thought at that time. My heart was smitten, but I didn't know what to do.

"Just now, when you were about to sing and stood quietly as if praying, I recognized you. I've wandered far and wide, since that other occasion. I have never found that Shepherd. Please help me now find a cure for my sick soul."

Deeply moved, Mr. Sankey threw his arms about the man who had been his enemy, who, indeed, could have ended his life. That Christmas Eve night, a former soldier found the great and tender Shepherd as his Saviour.

Used with permission of Grace MacMullen, the author. Please do not reproduce.

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