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Ira David Sankey: Author and Evangelist

Ira SankeyIra David Sankey, author, and evangelist, was born at Edinburgh, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, 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 nom-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 by Stephen Ross for WholesomeWords.org from The National Cyclopædia of American Biography... New York: James T. White & Company, 1897. Vol. 7.
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