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Messengers of the Word
Christian Biblical Studies
Messengers of the Word
THIS SWEET SINGER OF GOSPEL SONGS brought to the Moody revivalist campaigns of the late 19th century a zest and inspiration that prepared the hearts of thousands to receive the messages of the famous evangelist. More than any other man, Sankey pioneered an era of Gospel singing, which brought to ordinary God-fearing people an inspiring means of expressing their devotion to the Savior. And even many with no apparent religious leanings were drawn to faith and consecration through hearing the Gospel in song.
Ira David Sankey was born in Edinburgh western Pennsylvania, on August 28, 1840, to David and Mary Sankey, pious Methodists. As a young boy, one of his chief pleasures was to join in the family gatherings around the log fire to sing the good old hymns. Father David had a splendid bass voice, and others were well able to add their parts in harmonious worship. Young Ira was quick to learn and by eight years of age could read music and sing many hymns accurately.
Ira Sankey in his autobiography speaks warmly of a Mr. Frazer, who took him to Sunday School, along with his own children, and imparted the first ideas of the “holy life.” Ira recalls his conversion at the age of 16, by which he probably means his full commitment to the service of Christ.
In 1857 at Newcastle, where the family had then settled, he was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church, becoming superintendent of the Sunday school and leader of the choir. During those early years the use of an organ in church was still regarded by many as worldly, even wicked, and a tuning fork was used to determine the pitch of a hymn. But times were changing, and Sankey describes his feelings of honor at being the one to preside at the organ on its first introduction into church worship.
“That boy will never amount to anything..
Employed at the bank where his father was president, the young man’s chief interest was always his music. On Ira’s return home from a musical convention in Ohio, his father ruefully observed that all his son did was “run about the country with a hymn book under his arm,” to which his mother retorted that she would “rather see him with a hymn book under his arm than a whisky bottle in his pocket!”
At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 Ira Sankey was among the first to enlist in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call. Sent to Maryland, he organized a choir at the camp and led the singing, often assisting the chaplain in the religious services. When his term of army service was ended, Ira returned to work with his father, who had been appointed by President Lincoln as a Collector of Internal Revenue.
He was in great demand as a soloist at Sunday school conventions and other gatherings, but evidently had no thought of a musical career and never took payment for his services. It seems that he was one of those gifted troubadours for whom singing was as natural and as necessary as breathing, and from his youth onwards his remarkable, resonant voice brought honor to God and great blessing to God’s people.
In 1867 Ira Sankey was appointed secretary of the newly formed Y.M.C.A. at Newcastle, and later became president. As a delegate to the 1870 International Convention at Indianapolis, he was eager to meet the well-known evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, who was expected to be present. An opportunity arose at a rather poorly attended early Morning Prayer session. Having arrived a little late and sitting at the back, Ira recalls a reverend gentleman’s urgent request: “Mr. Sankey, the singing here has been abominable; I wish you would start up something when that man stops praying, if he ever does.”
When opportunity came, Mr. Sankey started up the familiar hymn: “There is a fountain filled with blood.” The congregation joined in heartily and a brighter aspect pervaded the meeting. On shaking hands with Mr. Moody afterwards, Sankey met the man with whom, in God’s providence, he would be associated for the next 30 years.
It was with amazement that Sankey heard Moody’s demand to serve in his revivalist campaigns, and at first he could not take the matter seriously. Now a married man with a young family, a secure secular position, and satisfying service with the Y.M.C.A, the proposition seemed out of the question. “But I have been waiting for you for eight years,” insisted Mr. Moody, and this great man’s persuasive power changed the course of Ira Sankey’s life.
Their work together began in Chicago early in 1871. The great fire of October that year which destroyed the city interrupted their plans, but work was resumed in a temporary tabernacle, where a corner was reserved as crude sleeping quarters. Reconstruction proceeded, and Sankey moved his family to Chicago in October 1872, continuing the evangelical work with others while Moody visited England that year.
Their memorable revival ministry together in the British Isles began in June 1873, and they sailed into Liverpool with the avowed intention of winning 10,000 souls for Christ. There was some resistance at first, and parts of the religious establishment remained hostile. As Moody commented: “It was easier finding the devil than finding the ministers.” Meetings were mocked as “performances” which merely stirred the emotions — and it was true that many wiped tears away as they heard Mr. Sankey sing the Gospel.
But the Moody-Sankey style answered a need and touched a chord in the hearts of many. Every level of Victorian Society was rocked by the impact of these two visiting American evangelists. While some early meetings were poorly attended — even as few as six persons, so great was their appeal to the populace that more than 20,000 attended the meetings at the Agricultural Hall in London.
What was the appeal?
Sankey’s tunes were compared to music heard in the music halls, in taverns and on the street, readily learned and memorized. Those accustomed only to metrical psalms in church often found the new, intensely personal style quite engaging. But the time was ripe for a renewed message of personal salvation, and most of Sankey’s songs were of this genre. Simple but powerful words, sung to simple melodies, enabled the people to lift up their voices and their hearts in a much more personal devotion than centuries of dry ritual had achieved.
Sankey seldom wrote the words himself, but he composed the music for many of the great hymns of that time, such as Trusting Jesus; There were Ninety and Nine; A Shelter in the Time of Storm; and When the Mists Have Rolled Away. A hymn featured in many early revival meetings was Hold the Fort, by PP. Bliss, Sankey’s friend and colleague, and a rare and crackly recording of this hymn sung by Sankey himself, made when he was in his sixties, still conveys through the power of his exceptional baritone voice the fervor of the Gospel message.
It was in Britain that he first published a small collection of 23 hymns that could be purchased for a few pence. So great was the demand that further song books were printed, and more than a century later in Britain it is Sankey the singer whose influence lives on most tangibly, through his “Sacred Songs and Solos.” This collection of 1,200 Gospel hymns is widely used by evangelical churches, and in Wales regular “Sankey Evenings” are held. To date, sales have reached over 80 million, and a reduced edition of 750 hymns is still in print. Royalties would have provided Sankey with a small fortune, but much of the money was used for Moody’s educational ventures, especially the erection of the Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts, Sankey’s hometown.
Until their return from the ministry in Great Britain, Moody and Sankey were not well known much beyond the Chicago area. They returned to widespread fame and acknowledgment and became the model for evangelism in the United States, which has lasted even to the present time. Revival campaigns continued across the length and breadth of America, in Canada and Mexico, and again in Britain.
The great partnership lasted until Moody’s death in December 1899, and thereafter Sankey conducted his own services of sacred song and story for some time. Sankey’s personal tribute to his colleague described Moody as “the greatest and noblest man I have ever known. His strongest characteristic was common sense. The poor heard him gladly, as they did his Master of old; the rich and learned were charmed by his simple, earnest words.”
The strenuous lifestyle of nearly 30 years impaired Sankey’s health, and overtaken with blindness from glaucoma in 1903, he lived his remaining years in Brooklyn amid the companionship of dear friends and family. Ira D. Sankey finished his earthly course in 1908, and his lasting legacy to the English-speaking world is that he, above all others, imparted to the Lord’s people the sense of joy and communion in song. And so the voices of thousands still
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord
as they come before his presence with singing and enter. . .
into his courts with praise.
—Psa. 100: 1,2,4