Ira David Sankey was born in Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, [United States] in the year 1840. His paternal ancestors were English: his mother's family originally from the north of Ireland. His father was an influential man in the State, being for a length of time a member of the lower, and afterward of the upper, house of the Legislature of Pennsylvania; while his wealth and influence made him an exceedingly useful member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in which he was also leader and exhorter.
Very early in his childhood the wonderful gift of song with which God has endowed Mr. Sankey began to manifest itself. In the day-school and in the Sunday-school his was a leading voice. He was full of music, and sensitive to musical impressions. Tunes which he once heard he could sing again; and before he was sixteen years of age he began to compose tunes for himself.
He was converted in his sixteenth year, during a series of revival meetings, and, with a large number of others, was received as a probationer at King's Chapel, Edinburgh, Pennsylvania; but before his term of probation expired the family removed to Newcastle, in the same State, where he was received into full membership in the Jefferson-street Methodist Episcopal Church. When about twenty years of age he was elected superintendent of the Sunday-school. It was at this time that he commenced his solo singing—singing the Gospel, as he is now accustomed to call it—which, from the first, proved a very great attraction...
Not long after this he was appointed to the leadership of a class of sixty or eighty men and women; a responsibility which led him to a closer study of the Bible, and to a habit of measuring his own state of grace by Scripture texts rather than by his feelings, or by the experiences of others. This idea he sought to impress upon his class, saying: "Tell us your condition in Bible language. The Scriptures abound with accounts of religious experience. There is no state of grace which may not be described by a text."
During the winter of 1867 a Young Men's Christian Association was organized at Newcastle, in which Mr. Sankey was an active worker, and of which he afterward became president.
His musical ability made his services in great request at conventions, mass meetings, and other public religious services, both to conduct the music of the congregation and to sing his admirable solos, which became extremely popular. His singing was a part of his religion; he was accustomed to pray over it as a minister prays over his sermons; and by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was enabled to lead thousands to understand and join in the service of song as they had never done before.
At the International Convention of the Young Men's Christian Association held at Indianapolis, Ind., early in 1871, Mr. Sankey first met Mr. Moody.
Their interview was characteristic, and took place at one of the meetings of the Convention, where Mr. Sankey had lifted the singing from the customary slow drawl into one of his own heavenward flights of song. At the close of the services Mr. Moody saluted him with the question,
"Where do you live?"
"In Newcastle, Pennsylvania," was the reply.
"Are you married?" "Yes."
"How many children have you?"
"One child." "I want you." "What for?"
"To help me in my work at Chicago."
"I cannot leave my business."
"You must. I have been looking for you for the last eight years You must give up your business, and come to Chicago with me."
Mr. Sankey replied that he would think and pray over the matter, and see what the Lord would direct. It was no small sacrifice for him to resign his profitable situation, break up his home, go to a strange city, and unite his fortunes with a man of whom he knew so little, but whom he understood to be wholly given to the work of the Lord, and ready to go at a moment's notice any where in the world on a mission in His name. But feeling that the invitation from Mr. Moody might be a call from Heaven, he determined to go to Chicago for a week and labor with him, hoping the Lord would there more clearly indicate his will.
The result of that week's work was the union of these two men in a brotherhood which is now known all over the Christian world, the Lord honoring his word by bringing multitudes of sinners to Christ through the ministry of both speaker and singer.
Mr. Moody having determined upon a third visit to England, induced Mr. Sankey to accompany him, where the blessing which attended his gospel singing abundantly proved the divine approval of his labors.
At York, the first field of labor in England, the singing of Mr. Sankey made a profound impression.
One instance is related of a woman who was deeply convicted of sin while listening to one of these hymns in the street and who, on asking and obtaining an interview with the singer, was led immediately to the Saviour.
When the evangelists proposed to visit Scotland, one of the apparent difficulties in the way was the fact that Mr. Sankey did not sing according to the Scottish tradition. In the first place, he sang but few of the psalms at all; and those he did sing were not in the accepted versions. But the chief abomination was the "kist fu' o' whustles," with which he accompanied his voice; and which, by universal consent, had been kept out of Scottish sanctuaries for more than three hundred years. Nevertheless, the Lord opened his way to the hearts of that people, and from Edinburgh to John o' Groat's House, Moody and Sankey went, preaching and singing to crowds of people under the sky, the only roof large enough to cover them; Mr. Moody being everywhere regarded as a prophet of the Lord sent to bless his people in Scotland, and Mr. Sankey, notwithstanding his organ, being received as an humble successor of the Psalmist himself.
Occasionally some of the elders of the Highland Churches felt a little troubled about Mr. Sankey's hymns, so unlike the psalms in Rouse's version. One of them came to his pastor with no little anxiety, saying, "I cannot do with the hymns. They are all the time in my head, and I cannot get them out. The psalms never trouble me that way."
"Then I think you should keep to the hymns," said the pastor.
One day, while in the Highlands, Mr. Sankey found in the corner of a newspaper that beautiful hymn, "The Ninety and Nine." The melody to which he sings it came to him like an inspiration, and he sang it for the first time in the presence of a great congregation, without ever having written it out. This was the favorite of all of Mr. Sankey's songs in Scotland, as it also came to be through England and Ireland.
Mr. Sankey relates this touching incident in connection with this hymn after their return to America:—
"While we were holding meetings in Northfield, Mass., the home of Mr. Moody, at the close of a service a gentleman took me by the hand and said, with deep emotion, 'When you came here last year I did not believe in religion, and would not attend your meetings. But one evening, when the audience was too large for the church, Mr. Moody held the meeting in the open air. I was sitting under the porch of my house, on the mountain side, across the river, and the still air of evening wafted to me a line of your song, "Rejoice, for the Lord brings back his own." Then I knew that on that mountain side the good Shepherd was looking for me; but I said, I would not be caught by Moody and Sankey, so I still kept away from the meetings. But the influence remained, and after you were gone I went to the church, and the good Shepherd found me; and now I, with my family, belong to this Church.'
"When I heard that, I said to myself, I will keep on singing this little song, since the Lord is still using it to bring back the wanderers to his fold."
At the Christian Convention which was held in Chicago, one subject was, "How shall the music be conducted in the Lord's work?" Mr. Sankey opened the discussion by urging the need of Christian singing. "Those who love Christ," said he, "should lead in the service of song as well as in the service of preaching or prayer." His preference was for a large choir, to lead, not to sing for, the congregation; but he had no prejudice against quartette's, provided they were Christian singers, and sung in the spirit of worship.
The question was asked, "What would you do if you could not get Christian people to make up your choir?"
Mr. Sankey replied that he would go down into the Sabbathschool and bring the best singers among the scholars upstairs, and set them to lead the singing. The effect would be to get hearty and inartistic singing, and it would often encourage the congregation to join, because the class of hymns likely to be sung would be those simpler ones which all could sing. Again, this course would be a great encouragement to the Sabbath-school itself, so that we should see the children coming from the Sabbath-school up into the Church instead of going away from the preaching of the word.
Another essential of good singing, Mr. Sankey thought, was the plain pronunciation of the words of the hymn. He had often heard singing where a person who didn't know what the hymn was couldn't understand a word of it. One of the most important things to be rigidly insisted upon was plain speaking. In fact, the singing of hymns in a voice that could not be understood was barbarous, and to prove this the speaker quoted the following:
"So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me ... What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also." 1 Corinthians 14:9-11, 15
This is a marked peculiarity of Mr. Sankey's own singing; every syllable can be clearly heard throughout the great halls in which he is accustomed to sing; every sentiment of his hymns is thrillingly rendered.
As the time approached for the departure of the evangelists from Chicago a most delightful farewell entertainment was given to Mr. Sankey by Rev. Dr. Arthur Edwards, editor of the North-Western Christian Advocate, at which many of the clergymen and leading laymen of the city met to enjoy a final interview with the genial and gifted singer, and to testify their appreciation of his work.
Mr. Sankey's life is a psalm replete with loving melodies, while his brotherly and winning address opens the door of many closed hearts to the entering footsteps of the Saviour.
At the opening of the revival work in Boston, Mr. Sankey at once became a favorite with the people. It was plainly seen that he was not and did not pretend to be an artist in music; but his ambition was a higher one—he aspired to a song-ministry, a preaching of the Gospel in tune and rhythm. There is no break in the flow of devotional feeling where his solo comes in: it belongs with the Scripture reading, the prayer, and the sermon. It is not a musical performance, but a musical exhortation.
At the New England Christian Convention, held in the Boston Tabernacle, March 14-16, Mr. Sankey rendered good service. The east winds have not agreed very well with his voice, but he has manfully kept at his post, and aided by his presence and counsels in the service of song.
This little extract from one of the Boston reports will help to give the reader a glimpse of the spirit of the singer as well as the nature of his songs:—
At one of the Tabernacle meetings Mr. Sankey made an address in place of a song, saying that he was too hoarse to sing. He said that a lady had given him a thought in regard to the well of living waters. Some people, she said, seem to give at once to those with whom they talk that which helps and comforts them, while others are unable to do so. She told him that when a little girl she had a garden, which, despite good soil and continual watering, did not flourish. Her mother asked her about her flowers, and was told that they did not grow. Her mother soon learned the reason. She had drawn the water from a cold spring when she should have taken it from some sunlit place. So it is when we try to give the people the water of life. If we give it out from cold hearts it will chill rather than invigorate. Let us all learn the lesson, and infuse more life into our work, and so have the word in the heart as well as in the mouth.
From Moody: His Words, Work and Workers... edited by W. H. Daniels; with an introduction by Charles H. Fowler. New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1877.
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