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Ira D. Sankey

Ira SankeyGive me the writing of a nation's ballads; and he who will may make its laws." This famous saying has passed into a proverb, and may well serve as the text for a sketch of the life-mission of this illustrious leader in Gospel song. That which influences and touches the secret springs of a nation's heart will do more to shape its life and character than all the statutes that can be heaped up in its legislative archives. And so, as we believe, the man who sets a people to singing

"The old, old story
Of Jesus and His love,"

does more to plant the foundations of Christ's kingdom firmly in the hearts of that people than could be accomplished by tomes of theological lore. Mr. Sankey, by natural endowment and a combination of favouring circumstances, has achieved this, not in the experience of one nation only, but of a whole world. For it is no exaggeration to say that the Sacred Songs and Solos, which are so closely associated with his name as composer and compiler, have belted the entire globe with a girdle of never-ceasing song. If the man who explores a new continent is worthy of being embalmed in grateful memory as a benefactor to his race, then he who opens up a new continent of spiritual experience, and brings into common use a new and powerful instrument in Christian service, must be regarded as a signal gift from God to the Church at large. And this, as it seems to us, is what Mr. Sankey, by the grace of God, has done for the Christian church in the nineteenth century.

Many of our readers will have heard of the somewhat dramatic way in which Mr. Moody and Mr. Sankey became acquainted and associated in Gospel work. It was at Indianapolis, in the State of Indiana, on the occasion of a Y.M.C.A. International Convention, that they first met. "You are the man I have been looking for these eight years," said Mr. Moody to the singer, after he heard him sing. Mr. Sankey was then about thirty years of age; but he had been unconsciously in training all those years for the call that then came to him so suddenly. He was born at Edinburgh, in Pennsylvania, in August, 1840. His father was the Hon. David Sankey, for many years a member of the Legislature of that State, serving in both Houses with distinction and honour. The elder Sankey afterwards filled the position of president of a bank; and was otherwise a man active in public affairs. He was a thorough and consistent Christian; and was attached to the Methodist Episcopal Church till the time of his death, which happened in 1884,while his son Ira was singing the glorious Gospel of God's grace in the great meetings held in London during that year.

Ira David Sankey developed from early childhood a great fondness for music. We have heard him describe, from recollection, the feelings that thrilled his youthful spirit when he first attended a church in which an organ and other instruments were used in the service of praise. He could scarcely be induced to leave the place. When quite young, he could play on several instruments. His mother related to the writer, some time since, how this penchant went at first in the direction of "Jews' harps," of which he accumulated a remarkable assortment. By and by these had to yield to the fascinations of a Violin; and we may presume that this instrument was in due time deposed in favour of the Cabinet Organ, which has proved so serviceable to him in the serious work of his life.

His first ten or twelve years were spent on a large farm; and then the family residence was moved to the town of Newcastle, Pennsylvania. The fact of his being reared in the country no doubt accounts in large measure for the wonderful chest development and purity of voice that have been important physical factors in his successful career. As a boy, he was full of spirit and the love of adventure.

Brought up under the best spiritual influences, Mr. Sankey dates the conscious definite acceptance of Christ as his Saviour at his fifteenth year, when he joined the Church of which his parents were members. In the succeeding years, he held various positions of trust and responsibility in connection with the church and congregation. He became leader of the choir; superintendent of the Sunday-school; class-leader; and ultimately president of the Young Men's Christian Association in his town. It was in this last-named capacity that he was delegated to the Indianapolis Convention, where he met the great crisis of his life. Here it may be mentioned that though fortune has since led him to sojourn in many towns and cities, both in America and Europe, he has remained loyal in heart and in interest to the home of his youthful days and the scene of his earliest efforts in Christian work. In grateful remembrance of what God has done for him, he has secured for the citizens of Newcastle one of the most convenient and comely buildings, devoted to Christian objects, to be found in the States. It embraces spacious premises for the purposes of a Y.M.C.A.; besides a Public Library, and an excellent Gymnasium, which are devoted to the mental and physical improvement of the citizens. Subsequently, we believe, he presented a valuable building site to the church in connection with which he first learned to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 1870, Mr. Sankey resigned his appointment in connection with the Internal Revenue of his native State, and went to Chicago to assist in the Christian work which Mr. Moody was carrying on in that great and growing city. Previous to this, however, Mr. Sankey had achieved quite an extended reputation as a singer, and leader of Christian song; and was in much request at Conventions and other religious gatherings throughout Pennsylvania and the neighbouring States. The work at Chicago proved to be the beginning of his real life-mission. For some time the two Evangelists laboured together very successfully, when there occurred the great Chicago fire, that destroyed the church and Farwell Hall, where the meetings were being held. In the latter building, indeed, as Mr. Moody has often told with graphic effect, a meeting was in progress on the memorable Sabbath evening, when the fire alarm was sounded that heralded such a terrible disaster for the "queen city of the West," as Chicago then was; leaving thousands of people burnt out of house and home.

So mysterious and inscrutable are the ways of God in His providence, that out of that event, which proved a disaster to Chicago, came a train of circumstances fraught with untold blessing to multitudes on this side of the Atlantic. No one can assert what would have happened if the work of Mr. Moody and Mr. Sankey in Chicago had gone on uninterruptedly; but at least we are safe in saying that the advent of the two Evangelists to Europe was accelerated by the sudden snapping of the threads of their American plans. In June, 1873, Mr. Moody and Mr. Sankey, accompanied by their families, landed in England, not knowing what the near future might bring. Their expectation was to evangelize on this side the sea for a comparatively brief period, returning to resume operations in Chicago when the city had sufficiently recovered from its fiery ordeal. They did not return till more than two years had elapsed—two years that were not only eventful in their own career, but fruitful and epoch-making in the history of world-wide evangelism.

The story of the labours of Mr. Sankey and his fellow-evangelist during the years that have since intervened, is so familiar that any detailed narrative is needless. Beginning at York, and going northwards into Scotland, and afterwards through Ireland and part of England, the work took root and increased both in volume and intensity, with the lapse of weeks and months and years, till the names of the Evangelists have long since become household words, not only in the places and lands they have visited, but all over the civilized portions of the habitable globe. Histories of the movement have been written; and others will no doubt be written, telling, in part, of the signs and wonders that have accompanied this ministry of Gospel speech and Gospel song. The latter, as everybody knows, has been Mr. Sankey's special field. He has shown what can be done through the medium of a consecrated voice, in conveying religious truth to the minds and hearts of the people.

He is not exclusively a singer, however. No one has been more active in the work of the "inquiry-room"; and many souls have been given to him for his hire, during these years, through his exercise of the gift of personal converse and speech, as well as directly through the Gospel proclaimed in song. To this unity of purpose, of spirit, and of endeavour, on the part of both Evangelists, may be attributed the fact that God has so manifestly given them favour with the people wherever they have gone.

Of Mr. Sankey's musical gifts and abilities our limited space will not permit us to speak at length. He has shown no small skill in the composition of melodies that touch and stir the popular heart. Many of the pieces that have been largely used are of his own writing. A special gift possessed by Mr. Sankey is that of discrimination and judgment in the choice both of hymns and tunes likely to prove channels of rich spiritual blessing to the people. Among composers he has had a wide field for this choice in the productions of Mr. Bliss, Mr. Stebbins, Mr. McGranahan, and many others less known on this side of the Atlantic. The hymns written by Dr. H. Bonar, Miss F. R. Havergal, Fanny Crosby, and other sacred poets, have also been freely pressed into the service.

At the same time, ample account must be taken of the wonderful charm of his magnificent voice; the sympathetic and magnetic qualities of which have never, in our judgment, been equaled, not to say excelled, in the case of any singing evangelist. Added to this, there is his studied clearness of enunciation, which enables the listener to grasp the sentiment of the song as readily almost as if the words were simply spoken.

These, in brief, as it seems to us, are some of the main elements that explain his phenomenal success as an exponent of the Gospel in song.

Reference has already been made to the hymnbook, Sacred Songs and Solos, which has become so popular, and has found its way to the most remote regions of the earth. It has grown from very small beginnings. When Mr. Moody and Mr. Sankey first came to this country they had no intention of themselves publishing a book of songs. The demand created by the singing of Mr. Sankey's "solos," however, made a fresh compilation imperative; and the Songs and Solos have gradually expanded from twenty-four in its earliest form, to seven hundred and fifty in its latest. It is perhaps safe to say that no Hymn-book ever published has met with such remarkable acceptance, or been so widely circulated. The hymns have been translated into a great many languages; so that in the service of praise and the work of the evangelist the book is today a bond of union among Christians of different denominations, and of various nationalities, second only in extent and importance to the Bible itself.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Christian Portrait Gallery containing over one hundred life-like illustrations with biographic sketches. London: Morgan and Scott, [1900?].

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