Ira Sankey: The Gospel in Song
“I’m afraid that boy will never amount to anything,” an anguished David Sankey exclaimed. “All he does is run about the country with a hymnbook under his arm!”
Born in Edinburg, Pa., in 1840, Ira Sankey was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Pennsylvania state senator. Instead, he would become the singing partner to international evangelist Dwight L. Moody.
When Ira was a boy, a neighboring farmer took him to Sunday school. Later, his own family began to attend King’s Chapel in Western Reserve Harbor. When he was 16, a revival speaker came to the chapel. At first Ira resisted the tug of the Holy Spirit, but one night he responded to an invitation, knelt, and prayed for forgiveness. His contrite heart did not find immediate peace, however, and he returned to the altar several nights until he received assurance of his salvation.
In 1857, the Sankey family moved to New Castle, Pa. Ira joined the New Castle Methodist Church. He soon became Sunday school superintendent, and his sweet singing voice earned him the position of choir director.
When Philip Phillips, the “Singing Pilgrim,” came to New Castle, Sankey was swept up in the impact of his music. He later wrote, “For the first time I really understood the power which there is in good solo singing, especially when the words are enunciated clearly and the full meaning of the song is brought out.”
Sankey added solos to his music program, and his fame began to spread in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Despite his father’s worries, Ira held a good job in a bank and kept up a strenuous singing schedule. But his life was interrupted and changed forever by the Civil War.
Gathering other soldiers about him around battlefront campfires, Sankey learned how to sing from his heart and into the pain of others. Any previous pride in his own ability was swept away in the emotion of wartime suffering.
This “singing from the heart” became his trademark, a quality he never lost. In later years, men would question the musical quality of his voice or arrangements, but it was his sincerity that brought him before millions of seeking souls.
After his tour of duty, Sankey returned to New Castle. His army contacts helped him gain a position with the Internal Revenue Department. The stability he enjoyed after the war provided an interlude for romance. For some time a young woman who sang in his choir had stirred his affection. On September 9, 1863, he married Fanny V. Edwards, daughter of a state senator.
About the same time, Sankey began to travel and sing throughout the eastern states, bringing him in touch with the vigorous YMCA movement. He was impressed with its organization and fervor and determined to bring a branch to New Castle. In 1867, he became the chapter’s first elected secretary and later its president. In 1870, he was chosen to attend the international convention in Indianapolis as a delegate.
During the train trip there, Sankey scanned the convention program. His eyes caught and held one name. He’d read about D.L. Moody, the featured speaker, and determined to meet him.
The opening meetings were uninspiring, and when the main session began a friend turned to Sankey and said, “Ira, the music is abominable. Can’t you start something to liven it up?”
Sankey stood following a long, sonorous dedicatory prayer and began to sing “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” The crowd joined in and enthusiasm spread. Moody’s address then heightened excitement, and the session was a tremendous success. Following the meeting, Sankey went forward to meet Moody and found the evangelist seeking him. Moody began firing questions:
“Where are you from?”
“Are you married?”
“What is your business?”
“I work for the Internal Revenue Department.”
“Well, you’ll have to give that up,” Moody replied without hesitation.
“What for?” Sankey asked.
“To come to Chicago and help me in my work.”
“I couldn’t possibly do that.”
“But you must, you must. I’ve been looking for you for eight years.”
As the two continued to talk, Sankey grew interested, but such an arrangement seemed impossible. He already had a ministry, a secure job, and family and spiritual obligations in New Castle.
But Moody insisted. He knew the power of good singing to prepare an audience to hear the gospel and to nudge them to commitment. He pressed until Sankey promised to “think about it.”
The next day Moody sent Sankey a note and asked to meet him on a certain street corner. When Sankey arrieved, he found Moody setting up a barrel on the sidewalk. Moody called to Sankey to climb up and start singing. Startled, Sankey hardly remembered how, but he found himself on the barrel singing “Am I a Soldier of the Cross?”
The crowd of factory workers heading home stopped and stayed for Moody’s sermon. One example was worth a thousand arguments to Sankey. He knew he must return home and seriously consider joining Moody in Chicago.
As was their habit, he and Fanny each laid the matter before the Lord and then shared their answes. After a week’s trial run in Chicago, Sankey moved there permanently, deciding to bring his family later.
Within a few weeks his soul was on fire with evangelistic fervor. He saw firsthand how hungry people were for the gospel and how God could use his singing to bring them to a decision.
Of those early meetings, one woman in Chicago wrote, “Mr. Sankey sings with the conviction that souls are receiving Jesus between one note and the next…When you hear [Sankey] you know of a truth that down in this corner, up in the gallery, behind that pillar which hides the singer’s face from the listener, the hand of Jesus has been finding this and that and yonder one, to place them in the fold. A certain class of hearers come to the services solely to hear Mr. Sankey, and the song throws the Lord’s net around them.”
Sankey had barely started in the Chicago ministry when a castrophe nearly ended his career. On Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, as Moody finished preaching, Sankey led a hymn. Suddenly fire bells were heard in the streets. Before the hymn was finished, that section of the city was an inferno, engulfed in the great Chicago fire. Sankey barely escaped with his life. Depressed by the many lives lost, he returned to New Castle.
But a determined Moody raised funds for a new meeting house in Chicago. When it was finished, a revival broke out among the stricken people. Moody telegraphed Sankey to join him, and in faith Ira and Fanny returned with their family.
In the middle of this new work in Chicago, Moody was invited to England. He left Sankey in charge of the North Side Tabernacle. At times the inexperienced pastor thought he would quit in discouragement; at other times his heart was lifted when he saw people’s lives changed. Charles Ludwig cites this episode in his book Sankey Still Sings:
“One day a mother sent for him to come to visit her little girl, a member of the Sunday school. The family property had all been destroyed by the fire, and Sankey found the child lying ill in one of the temporary houses that had been built for the very poor.
“‘How is it with you today’ he asked.
“‘It is well with me today,’ she answered, smiling. ‘I wish you would speak to my mother and father.’
“‘But are you a Christian?’
“‘When did you become one?’
“‘Do you remember last Thursday in the tabernacle when we had that little singing meeting, and you sang “Jesus Loves Even Me”? It was last Thursday I believed on the Lord Jesus and now I’m going to be with him today.’
“That little testimony from the neglected side of Chicago sent Sankey’s spirits soaring. Later, when his fame was worldwide, he stated that it had done more for him than the words of anyone alive.”
When Moody returned from England, Sankey faced another difficult choice. Philip Phillips had offered him a large salary to tour the western states. But Moody was filled with the vision of an evangelistic tour in England. Again Ira and Fanny knelt in prayer; England was the answer.
What was to become the greatest revival team in nearly a century barely dragged itself into Great Britain. When their ship docked, Moody and Sankey and their party discovered that all three prominent churchmen who had invited them to England had died during the trip. They had no meetings scheduled, no invitations, and no financing.
Moody immediately contacted a YMCA secretary who, during his previous visit, had invited him to come to York. The startled man was convinced to announce some meetings, and the tour was under way.
Sankey, however, was not prepared for what followed. Moody’s blunt manners and poor grammar didn’t appeal to proper Britons. Furthermore, many ministers were against “human humns,” solos, choirs, and musical instruments. They boycotted the meetings.
The common people, however, responded by the scores, and the York meetings went ahead without support from the ministers. The team was invited to other cities, and in Edinburgh, Scotland, there was a breakthrough. The famous hymn writer Horatius Bonar attended the meetings. Sankey recorded Bonar’s approval in his diary:
“At the close of Mr. Moody’s address, Dr. Bonar turned toward me with a smile on his venerable face, and reaching out his hand he said, “Well, Mr. Sankey, you sang the gospel tonight.’ And thus the way was opened for the mission of sacred song in Scotland.”
Another minister wrote during the meetings: “The service of song conducted by Mr. Sankey, in which music is used as the handmaid of a gospel ministry, has already been described in our columns. I have never found it objected to except by those who have not witnessed it. Those who have come and heard it have departed with their prejudices vanished and their hearts impressed.”
While in Edinburgh, Sankey first sang the poem “The Ninety and Nine.” He sang from a newspaper clipping as God’s Spirit gave him the music. The song was only later written down.
The response to this hymn sparked interest in all of Sankey’s songs. Many could not be found in English hymnals, and Sankey sat down to write them for publication. He tried one publisher and was rejected. The next publisher considered the 500 copies he printed to be a gamble.
The books couldn’t be kept in stock. Soon print runs produced hundreds of thousands of copies. Moody and Sankey realized it would bring in considerable royalties. Not wishing personal profit, they gave up the royalty rights to a trust committee. Later, the funds were distributed by the Illinois Street Church in Chicago. When the evangelists left England in 1875, two years after the hymnal’s release, publishers owed the fund $35,000. In 12 years the books, selling for just six cents each, earned profits of $388,000.
Moody and Sankey’s fame spread thoughout Britain, and churches in London were clamoring for them to come. They had already been in England for two years when they arrived there. Their schedule held five and six meetings a day, six days a week. Moody seemed inexhaustible, but Sankey became weary and had to escape for periods of rest.
In all, 285 meetings were held in the London campaign, with an aggregate attendance of 2.5 million. Following the crusade, Moody and Sankey sailed for America.
Their fame preceded them. The next years were filled with crusades in major U.S. cities. Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York, Chicago, and Boston were all swept with the fire of the gospel.
In 1881, Moody and Sankey returned to England for an extended evangelistic tour. The crowds were bigger than before, and the pace wore Sankey down. He returned to America before the end of the four-year trip and bought a house in Brooklyn. Other meetings followed, with another trip to England in 1891-1892.
During the next few years Moody and Sankey held meetings both separately and together. Rumors started that they were no longer friends. At Moody’s unexpected death in 1899, Sankey was shattered. He stopped all talk of a rift by declaring, “It is said that we parted, but no, we never parted until death parted us at Northfield.”
Later, when explaining how two such different men could work together so closely, Sankey told a story of Moody’s encouraging him to sing in a difficult situation:
“He knew me to be in a tight place, but he said, ‘Go ahead, Sankey.’ I did, and this is one of the reasons why Mr. Moody and I got on so well during our 30 years of work together. When Moody said, ‘Go on,’ Sankey went on.”