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The lines were writ­ten up­on my slate one snowy af­ter­noon in the win­ter of 1860. I knew, as I know now, that the po­em was on­ly a sim­ple lit­tle thing, but some­how I had a pre­sent­i­ment that it had wings and would fly into sor­row­ful hearts, up­lift­ing and strength­en­ing them.

Music: Beech­er, , Christ­ian Heart Songs, 1870. Alternate tune:

  • Music by , 1864

In Jan­u­a­ry 1865, sang this song at a meet­ing of the Unit­ed States Christ­ian Com­mis­sion. Pres­i­dent Ab­ra­ham Lin­coln, who was there, was so moved by its words that he asked it be sung again at the end of the meet­ing. Phil­lips, in­spired by the song’s suc­cess, went on to a pi­o­neer ca­reer in Gos­pel mu­sic.

If you cannot, on the ocean, sail among the swiftest fleet,
Rocking on the highest billows, laughing at the storms you meet,
You can stand among the sailors, anchored yet within the bay,
You can lend a hand to help them, as they launch their boats away.

If you are too weak to journey up the mountain steep and high,
You can stand within the valley, while the multitudes go by;
You can chant in happy measure, as they slowly pass along;
Though they may forget the singer, they will not forget the song.

If you have not gold and silver ever ready to command;
If you cannot toward the needy reach an ever open hand;
You can visit the afflicted, o’er the erring you can weep;
You can be a true disciple, sitting at the Savior’s feet.

If you cannot, in the conflict prove, yourself a soldier true,
If, where fire and smoke are thickest, there’s no work for you to do;
When the battlefield is silent, you can go with careful tread,
You can bear away the wounded, you can cover up the dead.

If you cannot, in the harvest, gather up the richest sheaves,
Many a grain both ripe and golden oft the careless reaper leaves;
Go and glean among the briars growing rank against the wall,
For it may be that their shadow hides the heaviest wheat of all.

Do not, then, stand idly waiting, for some greater work to do;
Fortune is a lazy goddess, she will never come to you.
Go and toil in any vineyard, do not fear to do or dare,
If you want a field of labor, you can find it anywhere.