You sit in the meadow, enjoying the splendor of God’s creation, relaxed, carefree, content, and in the blink of an eye, everything changes. Your heart stops; you stand, unsure what to do, shaking, unable to move, your palms sweating, your eyes scanning the terrain, overcome with dread as you realize that your deepest fear has come to pass: you have lost a sheep.
While few alive today will know such terror, drunken shepherds have always misplaced sheep. Still, April 17, 1864 was not a typical day for shepherd William Sanderling, known as Crapulous Bill; he had never lost a sheep. Did he turn to alcohol for solace, as he had so often done? Absolutely, but on that day alone, alcohol was not enough. While the ewe window-shopped on Main Street, Sanderling put drink in glass and pen to paper, hesitant at first, his vision improving as he continued, and wrote one of the best-loved hymns in American history, “Come Home, Disoriented Sheep!”
Not only is it a beautiful song, it’s also versatile, so smothered in metaphors that its hymn status comes more from being sung in church buildings than anything in the lyrics themselves. It wouldn’t be out of place at a 4H meeting. Some scholars believe that the song was never intended to be a hymn, that Sanderling was less interested in his soul than the sheep, which was captured later that evening while eating petunias on Sycamore Street and returned to wooly fold.
His fortune made, Bill did not forget the town that kept him in liquor and succored his lost livestock. When his spacious home burned down one drunken night, not only did he write the inspiring hymn, “My House hath Turned to Charcoal but my Weary Teary Eyes are Turned to Heaven,” he donated the lot to the town. You know it as Sanderling Park. Have you seen the magnificent Civil War statue in its center that looks uncannily like photos of Sanderling himself? He bought it. You’ve heard of Sanderling’s Wonderful Music Emporium, at one time one of the largest music publishers in the country? He was the founder. And yet William Sanderling, the former shepherd, the greatest philanthropist in Sycamore Shadows history, founder of the Crawdad Club, a songwriter known throughout the world, an accomplished businessman and a respected citizen, could only write hymns when he was drunk, hymns now sung by the sober in churches across the land.
As alcohol giveth, alcohol taketh away, and on a dreary November day in 1901, Crapulous Bill left this earth, a pen in his hand, a bottle of single-malt Scotch at his side. When they came to remove his body, someone noticed a fragment of paper, on which were several measures of a new hymn, the last music Sanderling wrote. Perhaps it would have been his greatest, had his liver permitted him another day. We can only imagine, for the man who recovered the fragment also recovered the Scotch, and neither were seen again.