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Ira David Sankey
American Gospel singer & composer


Ira Sankey on his initial reaction to Moody's invitation to join him in evangelistic work:

"I felt not the slightest inclination at the time that the answer would be 'yes,' for it was no small matter to resign a well-paying job, break up my home and move to a strange city."


Ira Sankey was the pioneer music director of the masses in American evangelism. The Sweet Singer of Methodism brought to the Moody revivals zest and inspiration that prepared hearts for the messages of the famed evangelist. He set the pattern for those who later followed in his footsteps--Charles Alexander, Homer Rodeheaver, and Cliff Barrows. More than any other man, he was the one who ushered in the gospel song era. Sankey was a great leader of congregations and choirs. He was a soloist of great ability, singing special music wherever he went. He also helped in the inquiry room.

Sankey seldom wrote poetry as did Fanny Crosby and P.P. Bliss. However, he did compose music and provide the tunes for some of the great hymns written during those days. Sankey can be credited with providing the melody for the following: A Shelter in the Time of Storm, Faith Is the Victory, Grace 'Tis a Charming Sound, Hiding in Thee, I Am Praying for You, The Ninety and Nine, There'll Be No Dark Valley, Trusting Jesus, Under His Wings, and When the Mists Have Rolled Away.

Ira David Sankey was born into the home of pious Methodists, David and Mary Sankey. One of the chief pleasures of his boyhood was to join the family circle around the great log fireplace. Long winter evenings were spent singing the old hymns of the church. He learned to read music this way and by the age of eight, he could sing many famous hymn tunes correctly. Spiritual interests were kindled by a Mr. Fraser, who loved children. Along with his own sons, he took Sankey to a Sunday School held in an old schoolhouse. Sankey had educational opportunities that many were denied. He became a Christian in 1856 at the age of 16, while attending revival meetings at a church known as the King's Chapel, located about three miles from his home. A year later the family moved to Newcastle where he became a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church. His talents were soon recognized and he was elected superintendent of the Sunday School, director of the choir, and class leader. His father was the president of the bank which also provided young Sankey with a job.

He became active in the fight to bring musical instruments into church services and he was responsible for the first organ to be installed in his own church. Here he gained invaluable experience and his voice began to attain that rich, resonant quality which was to make him world famous later on.

When President Lincoln called for men to help the government in 1860, Sankey was one of the first young men to enroll as a soldier. His company was sent to Maryland. In the army, his love of singing endeared him to his companions and he often led the singing for religious services held in the camp. He organized a male chorus in the company and assisted the chaplain with services. President Lincoln appointed his father as a Collector of Internal Revenue and after his term of service and the Civil War was over, Sankey returned to Newcastle to assist his father and enter governmental service. He remained with the Internal Revenue Department for several years.

At the age of 23, on September 9, 1863, he married Fanny V. Edwards, who was a member of his choir and a teacher in his Sunday School. The Sankeys had three sons, one of whom was born in Scotland.

In 1867, a branch of the Y.M.C.A. was organized at Newcastle and he became its secretary and, later, president. Many years later, he had the pleasure of presenting a Y.M.C.A. building to his city. The building, including a gymnasium and library, cost more than $40,000. The funds were realized from the sale of his gospel hymns.

Sankey's fame as a singer spread throughout western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. He received invitation after invitation to sing for conventions, conferences, and political gatherings.

He attended so many musical conventions, and spent so much of his time in religious work, that his father once said, "I'm afraid Ira will never amount to anything. All he does is run around the country with a hymn-book under his arm!"

To which his mother replied, "Well, I'd rather see him with a hymn-book under his arm, than with a whiskey bottle in his pocket!"

Sankey had no desire to make music a profession. It was never his custom to receive any remuneration for his ser- vices. In his work with the Y.M.C.A., he found an ever widening field of usefulness. In June of 1870, he was appointed a delegate to the International Convention in Indianapolis. For several years he had read in the religious press of the work of Dwight L. Moody. In connection with the convention, it was announced that Moody was to speak at an early morning prayer meeting in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning. Sankey was most anxious to hear and meet the man. Having arrived a little late at the meeting, he sat near the door with a Presbyterian minister who urged Sankey to start a song. At the right moment, as Moody requested a song, Sankey started to sing There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. The congregation joined in heartily and the meeting took on a new impetus. At the close of the service, he was introduced to Moody, who abruptly asked him terse questions. When asked about his business, Sankey replied that he was employed by the government. Moody remarked, "You will have to give it up!" Nonplussed, Sankey listened to the evangelist who said, "I have been looking for you for eight years." Sankey was interested but not ready to render a decision. Moody asked him to meet him at a certain street corner the next day. Moody brought a big box and asked Sankey to mount it and then requested that he sing something. Sankey complied and sang Am I a Soldier of the Cross. Moody then began to speak to a large crowd of working men, who had left the mills to hear him. At the end of the service, he announced that he would continue the meeting at the Opera House. Sankey led that large packed Opera House gathering in singing Shall We Gather at the River?

It took Sankey six months to consent to spend a week with Moody in Chicago. This visit concluded with a great mass meeting at Farwell Hall where Sankey sang Come Home, Prodigal Child at the last service. Soon, his resignation was sent to the Secretary of the Treasury, and a life of faith began.

At the age of 30, Sankey began his work with Moody early in 1871 and labored with him daily until the great Chicago Fire erupted on October 8, 1871, which destroyed everything. Moody had just finished speaking to a crowded Farwell Hall audience. As Sankey was singing, in the middle of a song, his voice was drowned by the clanging of fire engines. Confusion arose from the streets and Moody dismissed the congregation.

Sankey had spent many hectic hours in the confusion that followed the fire. At first, he tried to aid in preventing the spread of the flames, but a large wind all but doomed the city. The fire was moving toward the business section and Farwell Hall. The flames followed so closely, he was compelled to shake falling embers from his coat. When he arrived at his room, he grabbed his most valued possessions and left the building. He could find no means of transportation so headed toward Lake Michigan. After many harrowing experiences, he reached the lake shore in safety, exhausted, and very thirsty. He found a small rowboat, and, putting his possessions on board, rowed out far enough to find fresh water. Tying his boat in position, he watched the destruction of the city.

A whole day passed and now, on the evening of the 9th, Sankey determined to return to shore, even though the city was still engulfed in flames. To his dismay, he discovered that the line which fastened his boat had broken. He was swept out on the rolling lake and for a time his life was in danger. But God overruled and brought him to shore safely.

He took a train for his Pennsylvania home and stayed there until a brief telegram arrived from Moody asking him if he would please return to Chicago and assist in the new ministry at the crude temporary tabernacle that had been recently constructed. Returning, Sankey was to discover that he and Moody would often sleep together in a corner of the tabernacle with only a single lounge for a bed. During these busy months Moody was soliciting funds for the reconstruction of the church. Soon, a new edifice was dedicated.

Sankey moved his family to Chicago in October of 1872. While Moody was in England during this year, Sankey, with good assistance, kept the great work in Chicago going. Upon Moody's return, they seemed to work together better than ever. An evangelistic campaign in Springfield, Illinois, saw unusual power and blessing.

About this time, Sankey's esteemed friend, P.P. Bliss, returned from Europe with impressive engagements lined up. He made Sankey an enticing offer to accompany him and assist in the services of song--but Sankey declined. The partnership with Moody continued as they worked well together. Moody would arouse and startle his hearers with his preaching and at the conclusion of his appeal, Sankey would rise and sing. His melodious voice was soothing and comforting, with deep conviction, and he believed that souls could be saved with each note he sang. Moody decided that Sankey would be his associate on the next trip abroad, and agreed to pay him $100 per month.

The memorable 1873-75 revival throughout the British Isles began in June of 1873. Mrs. Sankey and Moody's family accompanied the team. En route to Liverpool, where they landed, they had been notified that the men who had invited them to come to England were dead and no meetings were scheduled. Remembering the Y.M.C.A. at York had invited him to speak there, should he ever return to England, Moody obtained the use of the Independent Chapel and evangelistic services were announced. The first service was attended by fewer than fifty persons and Sankey found the people unaccustomed to his methods and to his type of songs. F.B. Meyer, a leading Baptist minister of the city, helped turn the tide by his enthusiastic endorsement of the team. Invitations began to come from various towns. At Sunderland, Sankey sang several favorite songs, unaware of the opposition by the pastor to solos, organ music, and choirs. However, the Reverend Rees was impressed and posted notices announcing that Mr. Sankey, from Chicago, would "sing the gospel." This phrase came to be widely used thereafter. One night as Sankey sang Come Home, O Prodigal, Come Home, a cry pierced the silence and a young man rushed forward and fell in the arms of his father, begging forgiveness. The entire congregation was impressed and hundreds pressed to an adjoining room seeking prayer and pardon. Next came Newcastle, where he first began to use the songs Sweet By and By and Christ Arose. Here, the first choir was organized and revival fires burned for two months.

The Edinburgh, Scotland, crusade began on November 23, 1873. Apart from the Psalms, music was not used to any degree. Man-made hymns had much prejudice against them. Moody caught a cold and could not speak the first night. J.H. Wilson was to take his place. Tactfully, Sankey asked the congregation to join in singing a portion of the 100th Psalm. Scripture and prayer followed. Sankey then sang his first solo, Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By. The intense silence bore testimony that this novel method of presenting the gospel was being accepted. After the message, he selected Hold the Fort and asked the congregation to join in the chorus. Scotland was now ready for the ministry of Moody and Sankey. Gospel singing and the organ were now being accepted. The 1875 climax was the great London Crusade.

Arriving back home in America, on August 14, 1875, their first services were in Northfield, Massachusetts, Moody's home town. Moody's mother professed conversion there and Sankey sang The Ninety and Nine for the first time in America.

The team's first large campaign in the states began on October 31, 1875, in Brooklyn. Sankey's choir numbered 250 voices, aided by a large organ. However, when he sang, he accompanied his solos on a small organ, a practice which he always preferred, not wanting the music to detract from the message. The next crusade began in Philadelphia on November 21st where, despite torrential rains, 9,000 showed up for the opening service. Here, his choir numbered 500 voices. The New York crusade began on February 7, 1876, at the Great Roman Hippodrome on Madison Avenue. A choir of 600 voices was led by Sankey, and Moody had his largest audience to date.

Sankey's health was somewhat impaired, so he returned to his home in Newcastle. He busied himself preparing his new song book, Gospel Hymns Two, with his good friend, P.P. Bliss, assisting him. Bliss was to die a tragic death later that year, while on his way to visit the Chicago Crusade. The Boston Crusade began on January 28, 1877, in a temporary structure, and the staid, old city enjoyed his renditions as much as any.

Cities across the nation, in Canada and Mexico, were to enjoy the team in the years that followed. Back in the British Isles, 1881-84, they found many converts of former years.

Sankey's publishing ventures grew to tremendous proportions. His first hymn book, published in England in 1873, was called Sacred Songs and Solos. It included 23 selections. Then his Gospel Hymn series followed, with numbers one to six being published between 1875 and 1891. These contained hundreds of hymns still widely used. Several editions of these enjoyed sales that totaled millions of copies in many languages. Royalties from his song books would have given him a modest fortune, However, much of the royalty income was used to help Moody's educational ventures, especially the erection of his first school, Northfield School for Girls. Sankey was active in the Northfield Conferences which Moody conducted, and Sankey lived in Northfield in the summer. Fanny Crosby, also, spent several summers with the Sankeys there.

Sankey, his family, and a few friends sailed from New York in January of 1898 for a visit to the Holy Land. This was one of the great delights of his life. In 1899, Sankey returned to Great Britain. There, he held special services in sacred song and story, in some 30 cities and towns. It was this extended engagement that impaired his health to the extent that he eventually lost his eyesight.

The team of Moody and Sankey was to be together for the last time at a Brooklyn Church pastored by a Dr. Storr. The two spent a Sunday together in New York and then parted for the last time. Moody's last letter was dated November 6, 1899, and he died soon after. Sankey continued conducting services of sacred song and story for some time.

Sankey & Crosby

As blindness overtook him in 1903, he lived out his days at his Brooklyn, New York, home on South Oxford Street. During his last five years, he had extreme weakness and much pain as glaucoma had destroyed the optic nerve. Sankey maintained a sweet spirit of patience, and his mind remained clear to the end. Of all his earthly friends, who cheered him during his lonely hours, none proved a greater benediction than his beloved friend, Fanny Crosby. They would sing, pray, and fellowship in their blindness and discomfort. How they rejoiced in knowing that they would soon be together in glory with the Saviour they adored and reunited with D.L. Moody and other loved ones.

His publication, My Life and the Story of Gospel Hymns, came out in 1906. It was written from the memory of the original manuscript, which was lost in a fire in 1901 at Battle Creek, Michigan, just prior to publication.

Sankey passed on in his sleep without a struggle. Funeral services were held at the LaFayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, where Sankey was a member during his latter years. Several of his own hymns were sung at the funeral by an aged cousin, C.C. Sankey, including: The Ninety and Nine, There'll Be No Dark Valley, Faith Is the Victory, and Hiding in Thee. The sermon was delivered by the pastor, Charles E. Locke. Buried in the local Greenwood Cemetery, his grave stone has a bar of music with 'Good Night' and 'God Is Love' above and below it.

Stories of his hymn compositions seem a fitting way to conclude this biography. His first and most famous composition was The Ninety and Nine. Sankey and Moody were en route from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Scotland, in May, 1874, as they were to hold a three-day campaign there. This was at the urgent request of the Ministerial Association. Prior to boarding the train, Sankey bought a weekly newspaper for a penny. He found nothing of interest but a sermon by Henry W. Beecher and some advertisements. Then, he found a little piece of poetry in a corner of one column that he liked, and he read it to Moody, but only received a polite reply. Sankey clipped the poem and tucked it in his pocket. At the noon day service of the second day of the special series, Moody preached on The Good Shepherd. Horatious Bonar added a few thrilling words and then Moody asked Mr. Sankey if he had a final song. An inner voice prompted him to sing the hymn that he found on the train. With conflict of spirit, he thought, this is impossible! The inner voice continued to prod him, even though there was no music to the poem, so he acquiesced. As calmly as if he had sung it a thousand times, he placed the little piece of newspaper on the organ in front of him. Lifting up his heart in a brief prayer to Almighty God, he then laid his hands on the keyboard, striking a chord in A flat. Half speaking and half singing, he completed the first stanza, which was followed by four more. Moody walked over with tears in his eyes and said, "Where did you get that hymn?" The Ninety and Nine became his most famous tune and his most famous sale from that time on. The words were written by Elizabeth Clephane in 1868. She died in 1869, little realizing her contribution to the Christian world.

Trusting Jesus was written by Edgar Page Stites in 1876. The poem first appeared in a newspaper and was handed to D.L. Moody. He, in turn, gave it to his partner, Ira Sankey, and asked him to set it to music. Mr. Sankey agreed to do so, on one condition, that Moody would vouch for the doctrine taught in the verses, which he did. It became the favorite hymn of W.B. Riley.

A Shelter in the Time of Storm was written by V.J. Charlesworth. Sankey found it in a little paper published in London, called the Postman. This song became a favorite of fishermen in the northern part of England. Sankey composed a practical melody for church use in preference to a former weird, minor sound it first had.

I Am Praying for You was written by Samuel O'Malley Cluff. Sankey found the poem on a leaflet, in 1874, when he was with Moody in Ireland. The song was first used in the Moody-Sankey campaign in London in 1875. This was his second musical setting with only the famous, The Ninety and Nine, preceding this.

When The Mists Have Rolled Away was written in 1883 by Annie Herbert Barker. Mr. Sankey added the musical touch and another hymn was born.

Other Sankey songs, not mentioned in the beginning, were: Why Not Tonight?; Yet There Is Room; Welcome, Wanderer, Welcome; Take Me As I Am; It Is Finished; Jesus, I Will Trust Thee; Now Now, My Child; Tell It Out; The Smitten Rock, and one of the tunes of the famed Beneath the Cross of Jesus.

Who knows--perhaps it was Moody, rather than Sankey, who benefited most at that fateful meeting in Indianapolis in 1870, where God brought their ministries together.

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