It was unseasonably warm for a Christmas Eve.
The man stared at the passing Pennsylvania shoreline, thinking of his family in Newcastle, some 300 miles to the west, whom he might not see this Christmas unless he made his train connection in Philadelphia. Christmas, 1875.
“Pardon me, sir.” “Aren’t you Ira Sankey, the gospel singer?”
He smiled at the lady and her husband. He assumed the man was her husband. He thought he was gracious to acknowledge that he was, indeed, Ira D. Sankey.
“We’ve seen your pictures in the newspapers.”
He had not wanted to be recognized — not today, not tonight. He was tired and fretful and warm. Fact of the matter was, he was angry and provoked with Mr. Moody. “We thought you were still in England!” said the lady. “We returned last week, madam,” Mr. Sankey replied in his resonant baritone voice. And if Mr. Moody hadn’t insisted on more conferences and meetings, he thought, he would have been home by now for Christmas with his family. Instead he was a prisoner on a river steamer.
“Mr. Sankey, would you sing for us? It is Christmas Eve. And we’d love to hear you.”
Mr. Sankey said he would sing, and his presence was announced loudly over across the deck. As the people gathered, he pondered what he might sing. he wished he had his portable pump organ, which had become an integral counterpart to his singing. but no matter. He would sing a Christmas carol or two, unaccompanied. Perhaps he would get the passengers to sing along with him.
He tried to shed his melancholy. He was a famous person, whether he liked it or not, and he was not normally shy about his gifts. He was known on two continents as the gospel singer, the song leader and soloist working with Dwight L. Moody, who was surely the greatest evangelist of the day. Perhaps God had intended it this way — for him to be in this place, on this boat, at this particular time.
“I thought I would sing a carol or two.” Then, he added, “But somehow I feel I should sing another song.”
“Sing one of your own songs!” shouted someone unseen. “Sing ‘The Ninety-and-Nine!” commanded another.
“No, thank you very much, but I now know what I must sing.” He was smiling broadly now, feeling much better about himself and this situation, enjoying his congregation. “I shall sing a song by William Bradbury. And if you know it, as I’m sure many of you do, hum along with me.”
Savior, like a shepherd lead us,
Mush we need Thy tender care.
In They pleasant pastures feed us
For our use Thy folds prepare.
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
Thou hast bought us, Thine we are.
He sang all three verses. There was uncommon silence and Ira Sankey felt it would be inappropriate to sing anything else. So he simply wished everyone a Merry Christmas and the people murmured a greeting in return. The silence returned and he was alone.
“Your name is Ira Sankey?”
“Yes.” He recognized neither the voice nor the man. The man came out of the shadows. He was about his own age, with a beard beginning to turn grey, and comfortably but not fastidiously dressed. Perhaps he was in sales, a traveling man.
“Were you ever in the Army, Mr. Sankey?”
“Yes I was. I joined up in 1860.”
“I wonder if you can remember back to 1862. Did you ever do guard duty, at night, in Maryland?”
“Yes, I did!” Sankey felt a stab of memory and excitement. “It might have been at Sharpsburg.”
“I was in the Army, too. The Confederate Army. And I saw you that night.”
Sankey looked at him warily.
The man paused. “Then you began to sing.”
Amazingly, Sankey remembered.
“You sang the same song you sang tonight. ‘Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us.'”
“My mother sang that song a lot but I never expected no soldier to be singing it at midnight, on guard duty. Especially a Union soldier.” The man sighed. “Obviously I didn’t shoot you.”
“And obviously I’m grateful,” Sankey smiled.
“I always wondered who you were. Who it was I didn’t kill that night, on account of his singing an old Sunday school song.”
Sankey just shook his head.
“Frankly, up until tonight, the name of Ira Sankey wouldn’t have meant mush to me. Guess I don’t read the paper like I should. I didn’t know you’d turn out to be so famous!” The man smiled for the first time. “But I reckon I would have recognized the voice and the song anyplace.”
Sankey reflected on what might have been.
“Do you think we could talk a mite?” asked the man. “I think you owe it to me. Very little has gone right for me. Not before the war. Not during it. And not since.”
Ira Sankey put his arm around his former enemy. They found a place in a quiet corner of the deck to sit and chat. Sankey’s impatience and anger had pased. He no longer fretted that he might be delayed in seeing his family. Christmas would soon be here. It always came, but sometimes in the strangest ways.
The night was still and warm but it seemed filled with brighter stars.
Sankey even thought he heard the sound of angels’ voices singing of course, and singing the Good News.