The Strength Is in the Small

The miraculous hand of God in Heman Gurney’s life

Norma Collins
The Strength Is in the Small
[Photo from lightbearers.org]

Editor’s Note: This story was adapted from Heartwarming Stories of Adventist Pioneers, by the late Norma J. Collins.

Heman and Eliza Gurney were early Millerite believers and friends of Joseph Bates. They were among the first to accept the Sabbath and became strong supporters of James and Ellen White, even funding half the cost of publishing Ellen White’s vision “To the Little Remnant Scattered Abroad.” 

While little is known of the Gurneys, a few stories have emerged from Heman’s life that involve sailboats and the miraculous hand of God. The following is one such experience.

The Boat Came Home

Heman was a blacksmith working for a Mr. Sherman and a Mr. Hall on West Island, just off the coast of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, United States. Mr. Sherman had told young Heman to feel free to borrow his boat any time he wanted to go home for a visit.

Feeling a little homesick one afternoon, Heman got Mr. Sherman’s permission to take the boat to the mainland and see his parents. He planned to return the next day. Fog had already settled over the waters, but he knew the way so well that he wasn’t afraid of getting lost. After sailing what he judged to be about three miles, he suddenly heard a voice yelling, “Hard up your helm! Hard up your helm!” which means “Get out of the way!” Quickly ducking to see under the sail, Heman saw a boat practically on top of him. He tried to get clear, but went under the boat’s boom. His masts and rigging were swept away, and the boat was partially upset.

The sailors on the other boat fished Heman out of the sea and hauled him on board. How embarrassed he was as he tried to explain what he was doing out in a small boat on such a foggy day. The men tried to tow the little sailboat, but after a short distance the rope broke, and they had to leave it to the mercy of the wind and waves. Heman felt sick. He was convinced that if the boat was found at all, it would be at the lower end of West Island, dashed to pieces on the rocks.

The boat that had run him down and then rescued him from the surging water took him on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Afraid that his friends on West Island would be anxious about him, Heman quickly stopped by home to grab another hat—he’d lost the one he had on when he went in the water—then hurried on his way. His homesickness had turned to dread and a certain amount of fear as he tried to think of what he’d say to Mr. Sherman. How would he explain that his friend’s prized sailboat was lost or dashed to pieces on the rocks?

About five miles down the beach, he found himself opposite West Island. By now it was almost dark, but he was able to find a local boat owner to take him across to Hall’s boat dock. This was safely accomplished, and the man who’d rowed him across was able to get back before it grew too dark to see.

Heman wasn’t quite sure why he bothered, but he decided to check out the Shermans’ boat dock before going up to the house. There was the little sailboat, neatly tied up and secure in its usual place. He couldn’t believe his eyes! How could that be? Slowly he examined it from stem to stern. It seemed impossible, but there was no damage at all. It was a bewildered but grateful Heman Gurney who slept soundly that night despite his harrowing day.

The next morning he knew he had to face Mr. Sherman. After exchanging greetings, he managed to stammer, “Well, ummm, I see you found your boat all right.”

“Found my boat?” the man asked, puzzled. “What do you mean? It’s right there.”

With a sigh, Heman explained the whole episode.

Mr. Sherman hadn’t given the boat a thought since Heman had left in it; he hadn’t even known it was missing. Yet there it was in its place, undamaged, safe, and secure.

A reef of rocks surrounds West Island. At low tide some of the reef is visible, but at high tide it’s covered. There is only one channel—about 11 yards wide—through which boats can safely pass. At the dock the stones were raked away, making a smooth track about five yards (4.5 meters) wide to pull up a boat.

This was indeed a puzzle. Both the young man and the older man knew there was no way a boat could have gotten through the narrow channel leading to the landing. Even if it had, no one was there to guide it and tie it up.

There was no doubt in Heman’s mind that “an unseen agent” took charge of the boat where he left it. He was awed and humbled to think that heavenly angels should be appointed to care for him.

Man of Action

Heman S. Gurney was a man of prayer, as well as action. Several times in her writings Ellen White mentions that he was present when prayer was offered for healing of the sick. The main theme of his life was to tell others of the coming of the Lord, and to help them be ready.

Not only was Heman talented with his anvil, but he had a fine singing voice that often rang out as he worked in his blacksmith shop. Known in Millerite and Adventist circles as the singing blacksmith, he was in great demand as a soloist for evangelistic meetings.

A large company of Sabbathkeepers had been established in Memphis, Michigan, and Heman and Eliza moved there in 1865. For 30 years he was the local church elder, watching over the flock, making their interests and problems his own. He even served as president of the Michigan Conference in 1869. He was well loved in both the church and the community.

Eventually his health began to decline, and the time came when he had to turn over his duties to someone else. He died August 4, 1896, and was laid to rest with the assurance of “the blessed hope” of meeting his Lord when He comes to claim His own. The life story of this dedicated pioneer is, from beginning to end, a reminder that the strength of the Seventh-day Adventist Church lies in the lives and work of the “little” people—those who are unknown and unsung, but who quietly go about their Father’s business of winning souls for His kingdom.

Norma Collins