I grew up in a house that featured the “Footprints” poem in framed glass, hanging in our upstairs bathroom. When you grow up into Sophisticated Spirituality, you are no longer to reason as a child and you are to forget what is behind, pressing forward to higher and better expressions of faith.

But I admit that growing up this imaginative dialogue moved me and, I’m sure, in some ways shaped me. It seemed to convey a sense of the Lord’s nearness and presence in times of hardship and trial, and offered a picture of why God is with us even when he feels most absent.

So who wrote this little classic spiritual meditation, which was often printed with the moniker “Author Unknown”?

The short answer, it seems, is that there are many claimants to authorship (no surprise given the potential financial windwall if authorship can be demonstrated!), but no consensus as to who wrote it originally. You can read books like Margaret Fishback Powers’s Footprints: The True Story Behind the Poem That Inspired Millions (1993) [Powers claims to have written it in 1963] or Gail Giorgio’s Footprints in the Sand: The Life Story of Mary Stevenson, Author of the Immortal Poem (1995) [Stevenson claimed to have written it in 1936]. You can compare the various versions of the poem here. All of the alleged authors insist that their version is original and that this message suddenly and independently came to them as inspiration from the Lord—though the overlap in wording would cast doubts on such claims.

Tracing the exact origins and development may be impossible, but there is a theme in 19th-century evangelical spirituality that highlights the metaphorical footsteps of Jesus. For example, here is the beginning of Mary Bridges Canedy Slade’s 1871 hymn, “Sweetly, Lord, Have We Heard Thee Calling”:

1. Sweetly, Lord, have we heard Thee calling,
Come, follow Me!
And we see where Thy footprints falling
Lead us to Thee.

Footprints of Jesus,
That make the pathway glow;
We will follow the steps of Jesus
Where’er they go.

Rachel Aviv, in a thoughtful essay on “Footprints,” points to another 19th-century use of the footprints imagery, this time more in line with the 20th-century poem-meditation. It comes from the opening paragraph of an 1880 sermon by Charles Spurgeon:

Were you ever in a new trouble, one which was so strange that you felt that a similar trial had never happened to you and, moreover, you dreamt that such a temptation had never assailed anybody else? I should not wonder if that was the thought of your troubled heart.

And did you ever walk out upon that lonely desert island upon which you were wrecked and say, “I am alone—alone—ALONE—nobody was ever here before me”?

And did you suddenly pull up short as you noticed, in the sand, the footprints of a man?

I remember right well passing through that experience—and when I looked, lo, it was not merely the footprints of a man that I saw, but I thought I knew whose feet had left those imprints. They were the marks of One who had been crucified, for there was the print of the nails. So I thought to myself, “If He has been here, it is no longer a desert island. As His blessed feet once trod this wilderness-way, it blossoms now like the rose and it becomes to my troubled spirit as a very garden of the Lord!”

— Charles Haddon Spurgeon, “The Education of the Sons of God” (Metropolitan Tabernacle: June 10, 1880).

Those—like me—who are inclined to dismiss “Footprints” as Exhibit A of Evangelical Kitsch, might find in Spurgeon’s rendition a more gospel-oriented version of evangelical piety that seeks to explain how we walk by faith and not by sight with the Lord will never leave us or forsake us.