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Ira D. Sankey Dies, A Song On His Lips

Ira SankeyIra D. Sankey, who achieved world-wide fame as evangelist, singer, and author of hymns, who died Thursday night at his home, 148 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, [New York City], had been blind for the last five years of his life, but up to within a short time of his death, which occurred at 7 o’clock in the evening, he was engaged in writing Christian songs and editing the story of his book of hymns.

Just before he sank into unconsciousness at the end, it is said, he was heard faintly singing a verse of his favorite hymn, not one of his own, but one composed by Fanny Crosby, the blind hymn writer of Brooklyn.

Some day the silver chord will break
And I no more, as now, will sing;
But oh! The joy when I awake
Within the Palace of the King.

Mr. Sankey was born at Edinburg, Penn., Aug. 28, 1840. Perhaps no other evangelist except Dwight L. Moody was so well known all over the world as Mr. Sankey. His hymns are sung today in China, Egypt, India, and almost every other land, they having been translated into very many languages.

In the religious world he was most noted as the author of the "Gospel Hymns." He had a wonderful voice, which did not fail him, even in old age. It was his voice that introduced him to Mr. Moody when both were attending the international convention of the Young Men’s Christian Association at Indianapolis in 1870, and eventually started him on his career as an evangelist and co-worker with Moody.

He became interested in religious work at the age of 17, when his parents moved to New Castle, Penn., where he became leader in the Methodist Church choir. In 1861 Sankey enlisted in the Twelfth Infantry of New York, and conducted religious services among his comrades for his year of service in the war.

He was 30 years old when he met Mr. Moody at the Y.M.C.A. convention. His strong voice was heard above all others by a delegate sitting near him, who asked him to start a hymn which would inspire the convention. He immediately started "There is a Fountain Filled With Blood," and his splendid voice seemed to inspire every person in the hall. Immediately the whole assemblage joined in singing the hymn.

After the meeting Mr.  Moody introduced himself to Mr. Sankey and said to him: "Young man, you are the very man I have been looking for for years." The two evangelists soon after opened revival meetings in Chicago in Farwell's Hall, where crowds, eager to hear Sankey, were often turned away. Mr. Sankey then went to Great Britain with Mr. Moody, where they conducted religious meetings.

While engaged in a religious service before a large congregation in Edinburgh, Scotland, he composed the tune of the song "The Ninety and Nine." At the close of an address he was asked for a song. For the moment he could not think of anything appropriate, but remembering an impression he had received in reading a verse in an English journal the day before, he took the clipping from his pocket and placed it before him on the quaint old organ which he always used in his revivals.

He sang five stanzas of the song, and when he finished the audience sat spellbound. Mr. Moody rushed up to him and asked him what the song was. It then became known that Mr. Sankey had composed it on the inspiration of the moment.

Mr. Sankey’s songs appeared to flow from an inexhaustible fountain. At first he composed only the melodies, but later in life wrote his own words to his songs. Among his musical compositions are the "Gospel Hymns," "Sacred Songs" "Christian Endeavor Hymn Book," and "Gospel Choir," the most familiar of his compositions being "The Ninety and Nine" and "When the Mists Have Rolled Away."

His song books are said to have had a circulation of more than 50,000,000 copies. He became blind in 1903, due to overwork. He had planned several years ago to go over the same route taken by him with Mr. Moody in Europe, which was said to be the most celebrated evangelistic tour ever made. He completed the trip as he had planned, preaching in some of the places where he and Mr. Moody had conducted their revivals, but his nerves and eyes were badly affected by the time he returned home, and he broke down.

In his life work he acquired a considerable estate and contributed widely to charity. He presented a new building to the Y.M.C.A. in his home town of New Castle, Penn., and also gave a site for the building for the Methodist Episcopal Church there. In 1902, after having been a life-long Methodist, he became a member of the congregation of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, but this change of allegiance was made, it was said by one of his oldest friends, not because he was dissatisfied with the Methodist creed but because his feebleness made it necessary that he should attend a church near his home.

In 1863 Mr. Sankey married Fannie V. Edwards, a member of his choir in New Castle and a teacher in the Sunday School. His widow, two sons, I. Allen Sankey and Edward Sankey, and two grandchildren survive him. The funeral service will be held at 4 o’clock this afternoon at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, Lafayette Avenue  and South Oxford Street, and the burial will be held privately in Greenwood Cemetery.

The pall bearers, chosen a year ago by Mr. Sankey from among his close friends, are to be Stephen N. Reeve, William Harkness, C. W. McWilliams, and John N. Beach. The Rev. Dr. Charles E. Locke, pastor of the Hanson Place Methodist Episcopal Church, will officiate at the funeral this afternoon, assisted by the Rev. Mr. Bailey, assistant pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, where the service will be held. The Rev. Dr. C. B. McAfee, pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, is away on his vacation, as also is the Rev. Dr. Taylor, pastor emeritus.

Messages of condolence from all over this country and several from Europe were received yesterday by the family.


Originally published in The New York Times, August 15, 1908.

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