I read the following story in Kenneth Coley’s Navigating the Storms (2010, p. 53-54). Coley gives full credit for the story to Alfred Smith in Al Smith’s treasury of hymn histories (1985, p. 177). The story of Ed Spencer is so compelling that I want to share it with you here:
In 1860 the Olympian Ed Spencer was attending Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. During a fierce storm one evening, Spencer was studying in the library and was interrupted by the shouts of classmates who reported the certain destruction of a ship that had been caught on the rocks on nearby Lake Michigan, They informed him that many people were on board and that the chance of their rescue was bleak .
The young athlete ran to the coastline without a moment’s hesitation and began stripping away his outer garments. The currents were still treacherous, though the storm had subsided. He fought through the rolling waves and reached the stranded vessel and returned to shore with the first passenger to be rescued. After repeating this feat several more times, it is said that friends on the shore told him, “Ed, you’ve done all you can. You’ll surely kill yourself if you try it anymore.” The Olympians reply was simply, “I’ve got to do my best.” He plunged back into the surf over and over again until he had carried seventeen passengers to safety. Finally, he could go no further and fell unconscious on the beach. Throughout the night while he lay in the infirmary, he repeated the same question over and over, “Have I done my best, fellows? Fellows, have I done my best?” (Smith 1985,177).
Although those he rescued would return to their normal lives, the health of Ed Spencer was broken, and he would spend the rest of his life as a semi-invalid. Many years later a visitor to his home discovered the figure of a man who was a shadow of his former self. The stranger interviewed him about the heroic night and returned home to pen the hymn “Have I done My Best for Jesus?”