The following remarkable story is true. A longer version was written up in Song Stories of the Sawdust Trail, by gospel musician Homer Rodeheaver. It should provide encouragement to every mother and grandmother, praying for a wayward son.
Jack Norton had been raised in a loving home. When he graduated from high school, his parents provided for him to attend a large college in the eastern United States. There, he became friends with a young man from a very wealthy family, someone who was not a good influence. Dick Randolph got Jack interested in living it up. Pretty soon, he was more familiar with poker chips and cocktails than he was with his school subjects.
After graduation, his father had hoped he’d become a partner in the paint factory he had started forty years before, but the young man would have none of it. “This is no place for me,” he said, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. “I’m going to New York, where a man of my talents has a proper chance. So, let me have what’s coming to me.”
Sadly, his father made out a large cheque, telling him that was all the money he’d ever receive from them. Jack’s mother gave him a Bible that had been hers since she was a girl, promising that she would pray for him every day. Her son smirked, in a superior way, stuffing the Bible in the bottom of his trunk, just to humour her.
His college friend, Dick, got him a post at an architect’s office in New York, but Jack was more interested in late-night partying than in work. He met an actress named Flossie Brandon, and began to keep company with her. As long as his money held out, he was popular with the night club crowd. Letters came regularly from home, though he seldom answered them. When his mother wrote, she always ended her letter with these words: “You will know that I am praying for you, every night at eight o’clock.”
One evening, Jack entertained his friends at his apartment. It was Flossie who came across that old Bible, and held it up for the others to see. Embarrassed, Jack tried to shrug it off. “Oh, that’s a relic! Quite a curiosity, isn’t it?” he said. Just at that moment, the door of the little cuckoo clock in the corner opened, and chimed: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight o’clock, and he remembered his mother’s words. Surely it was a coincidence! Or, maybe not.
It wasn’t long before Jack’s money was gone, and his debts began to snowball. Then, one day, at the office, he saw the cashier open the safe, and accidentally drop a slip of paper on which he’d written the combination. Jack picked it up and put it in his pocket. Later that evening, he returned, determined to steal from the company.
As he turned the last number of the combination, the office clock tolled the hour. Eight o’clock. The words burned into his mind: “You will know that I am praying for you, every night at eight o’clock.” Bathed in perspiration, he removed two thousand dollars from the safe, and left. And though the identity of the thief remained a mystery, he was fired shortly after for his poor work and careless attitude.
The stolen money melted away, and the young prodigal was unable to find another job. His friends soon deserted him. For several weeks, he tried to drown his troubles in alcohol. One evening, he slouched drunkenly in a doorway, and watched a group of well-dressed men and women emerge from taxis, ready for a night on the town.
Approaching them, he pleaded, “Please, can you give me the price of a cup of coffee and a bed?” One man turned to him impatiently, intending to refuse. It was Dick Randolph. Scornfully, he tossed the derelict a few dollars, and told him to “Beat it!”
That was the end of hope. Devastated, Jack entered a pawn shop. With the money, he bought a revolver and some cartridges. Making his way to a park bench, he loaded the revolver, and put it to his head. But just at that moment a Christian group holding a street meeting nearby started playing music, and the clear, high voice of a girl began a song he’d never heard before.
I grieved my Lord from day to day,
I scorned His love so full and free,
And though I wandered far away,
My mother’s prayers have followed me.
I’m coming home, I’m coming home,
To live my wasted life anew,
For mother’s prayers have followed me,
Have followed me the whole world through.
Jack dropped the revolver in his pocket, and headed in the direction of the music. He followed the group into a little mission hall, with the words of the song dancing in his head. Slouching onto a bench, he tried to listen. Then, he saw it. Above the speaker’s head was a clock. As the meeting began, the hands pointed exactly to the hour of eight. Again, his mother’s words struck him: “I am praying for you every night at eight o’clock.”
The shipwrecked man responded to the gospel invitation, and got right with God that night, confessing his sins. But the superintendent who counseled him insisted that he also had to deal with the matter of the stolen money, even if it meant going to prison.
While Jack was taken to a bed in the mission for the night, the superintendent sent off a long telegram. In the morning, the two of them made their way to the architect’s office and Jack admitted what he’d done. “I’ve got to do my duty,” said his former employer, pushing a button on his desk.
Behind Jack, a door opened. But it wasn’t the police who entered. It was his parents. “We’ve come to take you home,” his father said. “I’ll pay the money back, son, and give you a chance to work it off at the factory.” By the grace of God, Jack Norton did get his life turned around. And his favourite gospel song became Lizzie DeArmond’s 1912 composition, Mother’s Prayers Have Followed Me.