All of the noted evangelists have perceived the great power of music upon the hearts of men and women to move them to action and to fill them with enthusiastic zeal for truth and holiness. Therefore they conceived the idea of making a specialty of sacred song, and thus began the distinctive work of the evangelistic singer. Hymns and music that are full of gospel truth and sentiment, and sung "with the spirit and understanding," wield a powerful influence for good over humanity and are sure to make their impress.
What would Moody have been without Sankey, Whittle without Bliss, Jones without Excell, Torrey and Chapman without Alexander, or any other one of the popular evangelists of the day, without his singing companion? Certainly they would have exerted some influence, but they all freely concede that much of the success of their work was and is due to the influence of gospel song as directed and interpreted by their singing companions. Perhaps there is no one better known and more popular as an evangelistic singer and gospel song composer, than the subject of this sketch, Edwin Othello Excell. He was born in Stark County, Ohio, [United States], December 13, 1851. His father, Rev. J. J. Excell, has been a good singer in his day and is a minister in the German Reformed church. The first twelve years of Edwin's working life were spent as a plasterer and bricklayer.
In 1871, Mr. Excell began teaching country singing schools, in which he was quite successful. This same year he also married Miss Jennie Bell, daughter of Hon. A. W. Bell, of East Brady, Pennsylvania. For a time Mr. Excell resided in East Brady, and had been engaged in singing campaign songs for not only General U.S. Grant, but also for his father-in-law who was a candidate. About this time Rev. Dr. J. B. Espy, of East Brady M. E. [Methodist Episcopal] Church, began a revival meeting and solicited the services of Mr. Excell to conduct the music. He responded to the call and under his leadership and stirring solos a great revival followed, Mr. Excell himself being one of the many converts. From this time on he devoted his energies to sacred song, and to more thoroughly equip himself for his chosen field of labor, he studied under Dr. George Root.
In 1881 he was called to take charge of the choir at the First Methodist Church of Oil City, Pennsylvania, where he won new laurels, and remained there for a term of two years. In 1883 he moved to Chicago, where he still resides. Here he met Mr. B. F. Jacobs, the father and promoter of Sunday-school work. He and Bishop Vincent, of the Northern Methodist church, were the founders of the Iternational Sunday-school lessons. For two years or more, Mr. Excell had charge of the music in the great Sunday-school work of Messrs. B. F. and W. B. Jacobs.
He then met Rev. Sam P. Jones, and in association with him he worked for twenty years in all of his revival meetings. He was with him in the last meeting he ever held, which was in Oklahoma City. In their labors they toured America and were eminently successful. The great amount of good accomplished in the evangelistic fleld by these two men will never be fully known this side of eternity.
Mr. Excell has conducted the music in the State Sunday-school Conventions in nearly every state and territory in the United States and in many of the provinces of Canada. He has toured across the continent twice with Mr. Marion Lawrence, General Secretary of the International Sunday-school Association. He has also been associated in Sunday-school work with Rev. F.B. Meyer, the great London preacher, Dr. Geo. W. Bailey, Bishop J. C. Hartzell, and many others of world-wide fame. Besides this, he has directed the music in many of the Chautauquas in various parts of the country, and his efforts have been crowned with success.
Professor Excell's fame does not rest entirely upon his work in the evangelistic field. His beautiful gospel songs alone would have made him famous. He has composed over two thousand songs. A few well known favorites are: "Since I Have Been Redeemed" (music and words), "God Calling Yet," "We Shall Stand Before the King," "Let Him In," "Scatter Sunshine," Count Your Blessings," "I Am Happy in Him" (music and words), etc.
He also carries on quite an extensive publishing business in Chicago, and has been very successful as a business man as well as a singer and author. Professor Excell has edited nearly fifty books by himself, and thirty-eight for others.
The great popularity of his books is evidenced by the fact that, to date, his gospel song and anthem books have sold nearly ten million copies and he is now selling from one and a quarter million to one and a half million books annually.
Mr. Excell's voice is a full, round baritone, of great volume, yet mellow and sweet. He sings with excellent taste and expression, and so has a moving influence over an audience, which is so essential to a successful evangelistic singer. He is yet in the vigor of manhood, and with his perfect health gives promise of living many years to bless the world with numerous compositions, and lead many souls to faith in Christ and His service by the magnetic power of his matchless voice.
E. O. Excell died June 10, 1921 in Chicago, Illinois, while on an evangelistic tour with Gypsy Smith.
"Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious." Psalm 66:2.
Copied and edited by Stephen Ross for WholesomeWords.org from Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers by J. H. Hall. New York: Fleming H. Revell, ©1914.