Digest>Archives> October 1998

Throw Out the Lifeline

The True Story of Inspiration Behind a Favorite Hymn of Generations

By Marguerite E Fitch


Untold thousands of church worshipers, down through generations have sung the familiar and beloved hymn, "Throw Out the Lifeline."

Reverend Edward Smith Ufford who wrote the verses, was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1851. He was educated at Stratford Academy in Connecticut and at Bates Theological Seminary in Maine. He held several Baptist pastorates and edited a number of song books.

Inspiration for Mr. Ufford's famous verses came after having witnessed a life-saving drill at Point Allerton Life Saving Station in Massachusetts, where a ship had been wrecked. The thrilling sight of the lifeline being flung far out over treacherous water, and the quick action of the life-saving crew, had great impact on him. When he reached home, he immediately sat down at the parlor organ and in fifteen minutes had composed both words and music:

Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave,

There is a brother whom someone should save;

Somebody's brother! Oh, who will dare

To throw out the lifeline, his peril to share.

Throw out the lifeline with hand quick and strong.

Why do you tarry, why linger so long?

See! he is sinking; oh, hasten today,

And out with the lifeboat; away, then, away.

Throw out the lifeline to danger-fraught men,

Sinking in anguish where you've never been;

Winds of temptation and billows of woe

Will soon hurl them out where the dark waters flow.

Soon will the season of rescue be o'er,

Soon will they drift to eternity's shore;

Haste then, my brother, no time for delay;

But throw out the lifeline to save them today.


Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline!

Someone is drifting away;

Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline!

Someone is sinking today.

The song was first published in 1888 as sheet music. In 1890 it was arranged by George C. Stebbins as a church hymn. It is to be found in most church hymnals that have been published in the last 85 years.

The late 1800's was a period of great "revivalists" - particularly in the New England area - who preached fiery sermons reinforced by the singing of appealing hymns. Ira Sankey, who accompanied the best-known revivalist of his day, Billy Sunday, often sang this hymn to prompt persons to dedicate their lives to better and more meaningful pursuits. One man, so moved by Mr. Sankey's rendition remarked, "There is more electricity in that song than in any other I have heard!"

Mr. Ufford travelled extensively, giving illustrated lectures based on his popular song. As an object lesson, to forcefully emphasize the spiritual truth of words, he displayed a collection of life-saving apparatus. As the hymn grew in popularity, several "lifeline leagues" and other similar organizations were organized throughout various states.

The impact of the cherished song was felt in one small church building facing a small inlet of the Rockland Maine harbor. At the rear of the pulpit platform there was a large painting depicting Jesus walking on the water while holding out his hand to Peter, who is sinking. On the wall at the left of the platform there was a miniature lighthouse. In 1923, the church was re-opened after having been intermittently used for church services, a grocery store and other purposes. My father preached there on a Sunday afternoon of that year, and my mother played the organ for the congregational singing. According to the established custom, the conclusion of "Throw Out the Lifeline" while the auditorium was lighted solely by one beam of light from the lighthouse shining on the painting. One of the attendants at that service told my father that the little church building, the wharf and the brick tower housing life-saving equipment - at the edge of the harbor - were lovingly built from funds raised from the sale of "Throw Out the Lifeline."

This story appeared in the October 1998 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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