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There was something about Sankey's strong baritone voice that was enormously affecting, [and one] English newspaper said: "As a vocalist, Mr. Sankey has not many equals. Possessed of a voice of great volume and richness, he expresses with exquisite skill and pathos the gospel message, in words very simple but replete with love and tenderness, and always with marked effect on the audience ...the secret of Mr. Sankey's power lies not in his gift of song but in the spirit of which the song is only the expression."

Don Friesen, Ottawa Mennonite Church, July 14, 1991

Ira David Sankey
Author and Evangelist

Ira David Sankey, author, and evangelist, was born at Edinburgh, Lawrence County, Pennslyvania, August 28, 1840. His father, David Sankey, was a prominent citizen of western Pennsylvania in his day, having served as state senator for a number of years, after which he became in turn a banker and an editor, and was appointed by Abraham Lincoln a collector of internal revenue. He was a member of the Methodist Episcopal church, and although a man of business, was often called upon to address large audiences on religious subjects.

Ira was noted for his fondness for music and his ability to sing well even as a child; he joined the church of his father and mother when he was fifteen years of age and soon became leader of the choir, superintendent of the Sunday-school, and president of the Young Men's Christian Association. It was while filling these positions and in connection with various other lines of Christian work that he developed his remarkable power of rendering sacred songs impressively.

At the breaking out of the war in 1861, he was one of the first to enlist in the service of his country. On his return home he was appointed to a position in the U. S. Internal Revenue Service, which appointment did not, however, in any way interfere with his religious work, and as a singer of sacred songs he was in constant demand at all kinds of religious gatherings.

Having been sent as a delegate from New Castle, Pennsylvania, to the international convention of the Young Men's Christian Association, which met at Indianapolis in 1870, he there met Dwight L. Moody, a delegate from Chicago, who, on hearing Mr. Sankey sing, at once invited him to come to Chicago, and assist him in his evangelical work there, which offer, after some deliberation, he decided to accept, and six months after their first interview he resigned his position and joined Mr. Moody in Chicago.

In 1871 the city having been destroyed by fire, they accepted an invitation to visit England, and commenced their work there in June, 1873. It was during this first visit to the old country that Mr. Sankey's singing began to give him an international reputation; his wonderful compass of voice, clear enunciation and evident sincerity made a deep impression throughout Great Britain, so much so that before he returned to America the names of "Moody and Sankey" had become household words throughout Europe.

Mr. Sankey is the author of one of the most popular hymn and time books in the English language, entitled "Sacred Songs and Solos," published in England, which together with the celebrated "Gospel Hymns," of which he is one of the authors, have had the largest circulation perhaps of any evangelical hymn books ever published. It was while he was on his first visit to Scotland that he wrote the words of his most famous song, "The Ninety and Nine."

He is the author of a large number of popular tunes, and has written a number of hymns under various noms-de-plume. He is also the author of the popular book "Christian Endeavor Hymns," as used by the Society of Christian Endeavor in America, and of a number of Sunday-school hymnals, but it is on his gospel singing and life-long companionship with Mr. Moody that Mr. Sankey's reputation will chiefly rest. [Note: Information up to 1897; Ira Sankey died in 1908.]

Copied from The National Cyclopædia of American Biography... New York: James T. White & Company, 1897. Vol. VII.

      Dwight Lyman Moody

Ira D. Sankey -- Moody's Music Maker
For Brother Spurgeon's Fundamentals of Music Class
Compiled By Kevin Paulson
December 18, 1993

Dwight Moody could not sing but knew the value of songs and singing in his evangelistic work. He enlisted the support of Ira Sankey in 1871 and together the two traveled to England as well as urban areas in the eastern United States 'reducing the population of hell by a million souls.' Moody was clearly the guiding light and visionary for the evangelistic endeavors, but he needed Sankey's songs to attract crowds and set the stage for his message. He would let Sankey begin with song, he would then preach and finally Sankey would conclude with a song as the sinners came forth.

By the end of their careers the names Moody and Sankey were linked and shared equal billing. A testament to the power of song is that the gospel singer Sankey was as important as the evangelist preacher Moody, their roles supplementing each other and each indispensable to the cause.

Ira Sankey, as song leader for Dwight Moody's revivals, made the gospel hymn a popular song, presenting the format of verse-chorus-verse- chorus in a way that gave the songs emotional appeal and memorability. In making the hymn a popular song, Sankey evoked the charm of popular music and used the song as an instrument for religion to convict and convert people.

Sankey preferred a small reed organ to accompany his singing. He did not like a professional quartet choir or putting the singers behind a screen in back of a minister. He preferred a choir of the best singers placed in front of the congregation, near the minister. Part of this desire stemmed from his own view that singing was as important as preaching and that he was as important as the evangelist, a view supported by the popularity of the hymns he sang.

Sankey was born at Edinburg, Pennsylvania on August 28, 1840 and throughout his childhood sang hymns with his family. He was a regular church attendee, singing in the choir, and was converted at the age of sixteen during a revival at The King's Chapel, a church about three miles from the Sankey home. Sankey's family moved to Newcastle in 1857 where his father was president of a bank. There Sankey finished high school and began working at the bank as well as singing and playing organ at a protestant church, where he was a leader of the choir.

Sankey joined the Union army in 1859 and, after his discharge, joined his father again, who was now a collector for the Internal Revenue Service. He married Fanny Edwards in September, 1863, and became known for his singing at Sunday school conventions and political gatherings. In 1867, a Young Men's Christian Association was formed in Newcastle and Sankey became involved, first as a secretary and later as president of that organization. In 1870, he was appointed a delegate to the YMCA' annual convention, held in Indianapolis that year, where he met Dwight Moody, whom he had heard about because of Moody's work in Chicago.

Moody and Sankey met after a morning prayer meeting where Sankey had led the singing of 'There is a Fountain Filled With Blood' after Moody had spoken. According to Sankey in his autobiography, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, Moody's first words to him, after an introduction, were, 'Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?' Sankey replied he lived in Pennsylvania, had a wife and two children and was employed by the government, whereupon Moody replied, 'You will have to give that up.' Sankey was reluctant to give up his job but Moody pressed him, saying, 'You must; I have been looking for you the last eight years'. [MLSGH]

Sankey stated that Moody could not sing and 'therefore had to depend upon all kinds of people to lead his service of song, and that sometimes when he had talked to a crowd of people, and was about to pull the net, someone would strike up a long meter hymn to a short meter tune, and thereby upset the whole meeting.' [MLSGH] The day after their meeting, Moody sent a note to Sankey, asking him to meet on a certain street corner. He complied and when he arrived, Moody produced a box and asked Sankey to climb up and sing a hymn. Never one to require much prompting to display his glorious voice in song, Sankey did so and a crowd gathered. After the song, Moody got on the box and delivered a short sermon, then invited everyone present to attend a meeting. He asked Sankey to close with another hymn and to sing while the crowd was led to the Opera House in Indianapolis where the YMCA was holding its convention.

Moody continued to press Sankey to join him but the singer returned to his home in Pennsylvania. Six months later Moody sent an invitation for Sankey to join him in Chicago and the two met at Moody's home where Sankey once again sang. During the week they were together, the two went around to visit the sick and held meetings with Sankey singing and Moody preaching. The first song Sankey sang at the first house they visited was 'Scatter Seeds of Kindness.' This was also to be the last song Sankey sang at a public meeting with Moody 28 years later in Brooklyn in September, 1899. The song, written by Mrs. Albert Smith with music by S.J. Vail, was popular at the time and was written in the format of verse-chorus- verse-chorus that Sankey would use throughout his singing. It contained the emotional sentimentality that many of Sankey's hymns did and compared the best of Christianity to the best of nature.

Again Moody pressed Sankey to join him but again the singer declined, returning to the security of his job and life in Pennsylvania. However, upon discussing the offer with his pastor and some friends, Sankey was urged to join the evangelist, moving to Chicago in 1871. Based at Moody's Illinois Street Church, the two made the rounds in Chicago, singing and preaching at daily noon prayer meetings as well as regular services.

During the Great Chicago Fire Moody's church and home burned. In his autobiography, Sankey goes into great detail about how he labored all through the night to save his material belongings, finally procuring a boat so he could sit safely in Lake Michigan with his possessions. After the fire, Sankey left Chicago for Pennsylvania and did not see Moody for two months. The evangelist finally called him back though and they began to rebuild the church, using his skill at raising money to provide the funds.    

Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey visited England for the first time together in June, 1873, and, beginning with some small gatherings in York, soon achieved fame that saw them preaching and singing before 20,000 in London. Sankey had begun compiling a musical 'scrapbook' with words and music to use during his singing. People often wanted to borrow it, sometimes not returning it in time for Sankey to lead the next service, so he had some words of hymns printed on small cards. Soon he compiled a book containing some of the hymns and began selling them for sixpence each; there was a quick demand and he soon sold all he had printed. This was the start of his songbook, which popularized numerous songs, including 'Rock of Ages,' 'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' 'Whiter Than Snow,' 'It is Well With My Soul,' 'Jesus Loves Me,' 'Blessed Assurance' and others and caused the hymns he sang to be popularized in the print tradition as well as the oral tradition. It was Sankey's songbooks which perpetuated his songs--and furnished a healthy income--and the popularity of these songs is directly attributed to the fact he not only performed them during revivals but made them available in print as well.

Sankey was a large man, grandiose and impressed with his own singing talent. He obviously had a full, rich voice. He seemed to be full of the assurance of salvation and his own election as one of God's chosen. He was born in the privileged upper middle class and remained there all his life. The Christianity he sang about was a 'social' gospel but a 'social' gospel for the middle and upper classes, drawn from the urban areas. For Moody and Sankey, Christianity was like a club, with members entitled to the privilege of Heaven as well as earthly benefits of peace and prosperity. All those not members were infidels, hopelessly lost and living in error.

One of Sankey's most popular songs was 'The Ninety and Nine' and reflected the concept of conversion as joining the elect. Sankey sang it often and his rendition is reported to have convicted many who had strayed from the fold of righteousness.

Since Moody and Sankey conducted revivals where the stated purpose was to win souls, it is obvious there would be many songs intended to convince the wayward sinner to return to the fold of Christianity. The story of the prodigal son is an ideal topic for such a sermon and Moody delivered it a number of times while Sankey sang this song, based on the prodigal son story.

The song 'Saved By Grace' was written by Fanny J. Crosby with music by George C. Stebbins. Crosby and P.P Bliss were particular favorites of Sankey and he sang and printed a number of their songs in his songbooks, setting a number of Crosby's lyrics to music as well.

Sankey provided the music for many poems and hymns he found from various sources, including periodicals, songs in other versions, or poems sent to him. He did, however, write several songs including 'Out of the Shadow-Land.'

This song--words and music--was written by Sankey alone. It was the last song he wrote and he did so for the occasion of Dwight Moody's funeral in 1899. The self-assurance of salvation by Christians is obviously present and Sankey had no doubt of his or Moody's reward with phrases like "Safe in the arms of God's infinite love" and 'Into the summer of endless delight' giving proof that he knew the fate of the believer. There is also the philosophy of the monarchy of believers--that God is a King and those who enter heaven are welcomed as royal subjects in lines like 'Ours the bright crown and eternal reward' and 'Into the beautiful mansions above.' Like many of Sankey's hymns, there is an abundance of emotional sentimentality in the lyrics and a romantic view of religion that contrasts with the harsh darkness of life on earth. Perhaps it was Sankey's intense devotion to the sentimental view of salvation and heaven that made it so appealing and struck an emotional chord in listener's hearts.


THE SOUND OF LIGHT: A HISTORY OF GOSPEL MUSIC by Don Cusic. (Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green, Ohio 43403, 1990).

MY LIFE AND THE STORY OF THE GOSPEL HYMNS by Ira Sankey. (The Sunday School Times, Philadelphia, 1907).

MEN WHO SHAPED AMERICA by Robert Flood. (Moody Press, Chicago,1976

GOSPEL RADIO: A 20TH-CENTURY TOOL FOR A 20TH-CENTURY CHALLENGE by Barry C. Siedell. (Back to the Bible Broadcast, Box 82808 Lincoln, Nebraska

When Sankey Sang On Christmas Eve

It happened that on Christmas Eve of the year 1875, Ira D. Sankey (to whom God had given wonderful power to sing the Gospel, and who worked with Dwight L. Moody) was traveling by steamboat up the Delaware River. It was a calm, starlit evening and there were many passengers gathered on the deck. Mr. Sankey was asked to sing, and, as always, he was perfectly willing to do so. He stood there leaning against one of the great funnels of the boat and his eyes were raised to the starry heavens in quiet prayer. It was his intention to sing a Christmas song, but somehow he was driven to sing …

Play:The Shepherd Song

"Saviour, like a shepherd lead us.
Much we need Thy tenderest care:
In Thy pleasant pastures feed us.
For our use Thy folds prepare:
Blessed Jesus, Blessed Jesus,
Thou hast bought us. Thine We are.

"We are Thine, do Thou befriend us.
Be the Guardian of our way:
Keep Thy flock, from sin defend us.
Seek us when we go astray:
Blessed Jesus, Blessed Jesus,
Hear, oh, hear us when we pray.

"Thou hast Promised to receive us.
Poor and sinful though we be:
Thou hast mercy to relieve us,
Grace to cleanse and power to free;
Blessed Jesus, Blessed Jesus,
We will early turn to Thee.

"Early let us seek Thy favor.
Early let us do Thy will
Blessed Lord and only Saviour
With Thy love our bosoms fill:
Blessed Jesus, Blessed Jesus,
Thou hast loved us, love us still."

There was a deep stillness. Words and melody, wending forth from the singer's soul, floated out over the deck and the quiet river. Every heart was touched. After the song was ended a man with a rough, weather-beaten face came up to Mr. Sankey and said,

"Did you ever serve in the Union Army?"
"Yes, answered Mr. Sankey. "in the spring of 1860."
"Can you remember if you were doing picket duty on a bright moonlit night in 1862?"
"Yes," answered Mr. Sankey, very much surprised.

"So do I," said the stranger, "but I was serving in the Confederate Army. When I saw you standing at your post I thought to myself: 'That fellow will never get away from here alive.' I raised my musket and took aim. I was standing in the shadow completely concealed while the full light of the moon was falling on you. At that instant, just as a moment ago, you raised your eyes to heaven and began to sing. Music, especially song, has always had a wonderful power over me, and I took my finger off the trigger.

" 'Let him sing his song to the end.' I said to myself, 'I can shoot him afterwards. He's my victim at all events, and my bullet cannot miss him.'

"But the song you sang then was the song you sang just now. I heard the words perfectly:

'We are thine do Thou befriend us;
Be the guardian of our way.'

"These words stirred up many memories in my heart, I began to think of my childhood and my God-fearing mother. She had many, many times sung that song to me. But she died all too soon. Otherwise much in my life would no doubt have been different.

"When you had finished your song, it was impossible for me to take aim at you again. I thought: ‘The Lord Who is able to save that man from certain death must surely be great and mighty' -and my arm of its own accord dropped limp at my side.

Since that time I have wandered about far and wide; but when I just now saw you standing there praying just as on that; other occasion, I recognized you. Then my heart was wounded by your song; now I wish that you may help me find a cure for my sick soul."

Deeply moved, Mr. Sankey threw his arms about the man who in the days of the war had been his enemy. And this Christmas night the two went together to the manger in Bethlehem. There the stranger found Him who was their common Saviour, and Good Shepherd, who seeks for the lost sheep until He finds it. And when He has found it He lays it on His shoulders rejoicing.   -  from Pilgrim Tract Society

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