Edward Spencer

Did I do my best? 

When the steamship Lady Elgin collided with the schooner Augusta on September 8, 1860, over 300 people were thrown into the waters of Lake Michigan. Many of them did not survive the wreckage. As bystanders gathered at the lakeshore, Edward Spencer, a student at Garrett Biblical Institute and Northwestern University, spotted a woman clinging to wreckage. Throwing off his coat and jumping into the heavy waves he succeeded in bringing her to safety.

Spencer repeated this act of valor 17 times that night before passing out from exhaustion. He was taken to his Evanston apartment to recover where he lay unconscious for several hours. Upon waking, he looked up at his brother, William, and asked, “Will, did I do my full duty – did I do my best? “

In 1924, Edwin Young was inspired by Spencer’s story and published a hymn that draws the spiritual lesson learned that night:

How many are the lost that I have lifted?
How many are the chained I’ve helped to free?
I wonder, have I don’t my best for Jesus,
When He has done so much for me?

The physical and emotional toll on Spencer was great and as a result he never completed his education at Garrett Biblical Institute, nor Northwestern University. The events of that night haunted Spencer until his death. It has been reported that not one of the 17 survivors he rescued ever returned to say thank you and on his death bed Spencer uttered the humble words, “Tell me the truth; did I fail to do my best?”

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