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Some History Behind "I Am the Captain of My Soul"

In 1875 a British poet named William Ernest Henley published a short poem that expressed one way to cope with life's circumstances. The poem, called "Invictus," ended with these famous lines: "I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul."

In popular culture, those last two lines usually represent some kind of heroic and self-sufficient stand against evil and injustice without submitting to God. The journalist Danniel Hannan called the poem "a final and terrible act of defiance. The Horror might indeed have awaited [Henley], but he would go there on his own terms, leaving the spittle sliding down his Maker's face."

For over a hundred years, Henley's poem has inspired many people. In the 1980s, the poem encouraged former South African president Nelson Mandala throughout the dark days of his imprisonment. Years later, Clint Eastwood used it as the title for his popular film about the South African rugby team.

Sadly, it was also a great influence on Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the deaths of 168 men, women, and children, and the injuries of 800 more. He scribbled out the words of "Invictus" and handed it to authorities as his last words before his execution.

Sixteen years after Henley first published "Invictus," the British preacher Charles Spurgeon offered another philosophy of life. On June 7, 1891, in the closing words of his final sermon, Spurgeon urged people to submit to a better "Captain" for our soul. Spurgeon said:

Every [person] must serve somebody: we have no choice as to that fact. Those who have no master are slaves to themselves. Depend upon it, you will either serve Satan or Christ. Either self or the Savior. You will find sin, self, Satan, and the world to be hard masters; but if you wear the uniform of Christ, you will find him so meek and lowly of heart that you will find rest unto your souls …. If you could see our Captain, you would go down on your knees and beg him to let you enter the ranks of those who follow him. It is heaven to serve Jesus.

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