Guideposts Classics: Kate Smith on the Power of Prayer

In this story from August 1949, beloved songstress Kate Smith reveals the important role that faith played in her life and career.

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- Posted on May 15, 2013

Beloved songbird Kate Smith

I was sitting calmly in a beauty parlor having my hair set when it happened. A spark flew out of a defective hand-cooler and ignited the cotton wadding around my head.

In an instant the cotton flared up—my hair was on fire!

The frantic operator flailed at the flames, but before he could put out the fire, my eyebrows, eyelids, face and arms were badly burned. For weeks I lay in bed with my head completely bandaged. Around me I kept hearing whispered consultations. The doctor said something about my eyes.

They were gravely concerned about my sight. I was worried too, yet I had practically no fear. A calm faith took over and steadied me more than could have any professional assurance. I believe deeply in prayer, and in this case it was simply a matter of turning everything over to God.

When the time came for the bandages to be removed, my lashes had grown back, there was not even a blemish on my face and my sight was intact. To the doctors, my recovery was nothing short of a miracle. If it was a miracle, it was because of my prayers and faith.

“Don’t ever be afraid to go to God,” I was once told. “He’s One who will never tell you to come back some other time when He’s not so busy.”

I found this to be true for the first time at the age of ten.

My family had taken a house for the summer at Colonial Beach, Virginia, not far from my native city of Washington. One day, two little girls with whom I had become friendly invited me to go canoeing with them on the Potomac River.

The day was warm and clear. The river lay serene and very blue—reflecting the cloudless sky above. Chattering excitedly, we climbed into the canoe and all three began to paddle. Soon we were so busy exchanging girlish confidences that we didn’t notice we had reached the part of the river which empties into Chesapeake Bay where there are strong currents.

Suddenly, it dawned on us that we were much too far from shore and moving faster than we should. The blue in the sky had changed to a pale, dull gray.

We grew frightened. “We’d better turn back,” one of the girls said. “Paddle toward shore, Kate.”

I tried to follow instructions and turn the canoe around. I remember my feelings as I stammered: “I can’t do it.”

The wind grew stronger; the waves like hungry animals pulled us toward them. We tried to scream for help, but fear paralyzed our voices. Without warning the canoe suddenly flipped over, pitching the three of us into the cold waters of the Potomac.

Not one of us was a good swimmer, and even a good swimmer could not have survived these raging currents.

“Hold on to the canoe,” I yelled. “Don’t let go.”

Numbed by the sudden cold, sputtering, desperate, we held on. Finally, we found our voices and screamed for help, but we were too far from shore for anyone to hear us. For the first time in our short lives I thought, “We can’t help ourselves. We are going to die.”

It’s a staggering thought for a little girl. Then I remembered the wise words of my parents—that there would be times when I couldn’t help myself, but God was always available to help. Did I believe that? Yes, I cried to myself. I must believe it. I prayed with frantic intentness.

Then came doubts. Maybe He wouldn’t answer—perhaps He had forgotten us. Maybe He was too busy with much more important matters than to save three little girls. We couldn’t hold on much longer.

Suddenly, an incoming fishing boat appeared out of nowhere and spotted us. Chattering with cold, we were lifted out of the icy waters and brought back to shore. My prayer was answered.

God had not been too busy to listen! That experience made me vow never to doubt again. Instead, the events of years that followed have strengthened my faith.

I believe in the power of prayer so completely that when Ted Collins, my manager and producer, was stricken with a heart attack some years ago, I asked my radio listeners to join me in prayers for his recovery.

Thousands of letters assured me that people all over the country were praying for him. Ted completely recovered.

These letters also made me realize how deeply sensitive people were to the needs of others. Like God, people also have that listening quality, and I have been thrilled time after time by their response.

A sick boy in an iron lung in Poughkeepsie once wrote in that his mother was sick and nobody came to see him. A suggestion that people send him postcards resulted in his receiving 30,000 pieces of mail, including baseball bats, five-pound boxes of candy, toys and telegrams.

A woman in South Bend, Indiana, sent him a dozen roses every day for two weeks.

I’ll never forget the three terrible days in 1936—May 18, 19 and 20—when floods surged over thousands of homes, killing scores of people in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Eye witnesses to the disaster were put on the air, and a stirred nation began to send in financial help—to say nothing of supplies and clothing. The longshoremen of the New York docks brought in silver dimes, quarters and dollars in a burlap bag. Total cash contributions topped the one million mark!

A little girl whose mother was too poor to buy her a doll for Christmas wrote in that she was confident Santa Claus would bring her one anyway. After her story went out over the air, listeners sent in 8,000 dolls by Christmas Day. We had Western Union messengers distribute them to little girls in towns all over the country.

These people who responded were not too busy to listen to the troubles, heartaches and yearnings of others. This sensitivity to the needs of others can be the source of great happiness.

I have found that real riches in life are things money cannot buy. I am rich when a wrong is righted, and especially if I have contributed something to its doing. I am rich because of failures and lessons learned—because of dreams that failed to materialize and others which came true.

Riches are the things we cherish because we have put something of ourselves into them.

A person is rich who cares about every living human being that God created, and not just the few who make his or her life more pleasant. Keep yourself tuned in to God and to the need of your fellowman, and you will find yourself with all the wealth you’ve dreamed of.

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