The author of this famous hymn, while living in Massachusetts near the ocean, one day saw a vessel wrecked near the shore, and this suggested the idea of the song. Mr. Stebbins shortly afterward, about 1889, obtained it from the author, and made a number of changes in Mr. Ufford's harmony. From Mr. Stebbins I secured it for publication in ”Gospel Hymns” and in ”Sacred Songs and Solos. ”It became one of the most useful of evangelistic hymns, and was often sung with effect at our meetings in Great Britain.
A Christian commercial traveler has just sent me this word: ”A few of us were holding a street meeting at Warsaw, Indiana, last August. 'Throw out the Life-Line 'had been sung, and a man spoke as follows: ' I live at North Tonawanda, on the Niagara River. Some time ago my son was walking toward home when he heard a scream from the river. He rushed down and saw a young lady struggling in the water, being swept down the river. He hurriedly took off his coat, vest and shoes, jumped in, swam to the lady, took hold of her and called to some men, who were farther down the river, to throw out a life-line. The men heard the voice, saw the man and woman being swept down the river, and hastily threw out a line to them. But it was just about three feet too short. My son and the woman were swept over the falls and both were drowned.' There were two or three hundred people at this street meeting, and the speaker made the application that we should be sure that our life-line is long enough to reach the people we are after. It was a very effective service, and resulted in at least one conversion."
Professor Drummond told me this story, and made his own application of it: ”On the coast of Spain a great storm was raging, and a wrecked vessel came drifting near the light-house. The cries of the perishing seamen were heard in the darkness. The lighthouse keeper, in making his report to the government —which was required by law in the case of a wreck— said: ' We rendered all possible aid from the top of the light-house with the speaking trumpet; notwithstanding, the next morning twenty corpses were found on the shore and the vessel had disappeared.' This is too often the case in our preaching. We get into a high pulpit and shout at the top of our voices, but we seldom take the life-line in our hands and go down to those who are perishing in the waves of sin, to rescue them ere it is too late."
A man on an Atlantic steamer told me another story, which in its way illustrates the song: ”One stormy night at sea a cry was raised on board a steamer, ' Man overboard; man overboard!' A number of the alarmed passengers ran to the captain and begged him to stop the vessel. He roughly told them to mind their own business and not to bother him. As he said this a seaman ran up to the bridge and cried that the man who had gone overboard was the captain's brother. This made a great difference to the captain. He at once reversed the vessel, rushed to the stern, seized a life-line, and threw it as far as he could toward the drowning man, hoping that he might be able to lay hold of it. Fortunately the man seized the line, and, tying it around his body, cried: ' Pull away, pull away!' The captain cried, ' Have you hold of the line?' A faint answer came back, 'The line has hold of me.' In a little while the man was drawn on board and saved."