Ira David Sankey was born in Edinburg, Pennsylvania, [United States] on August 28, 1840 to David and Mary Leeper Sankey. The Sankeys were a middle class family with influence in the community. David Sankey was a member of the State Senate and it was through his efforts that legislation was passed for the creation of Lawrence County in 1849.
As a young boy, Ira enjoyed music. Much of his love for music came from his family who spent a great deal of time singing hymns around the organ in the evenings. It was in his own home that he learned to read music and play the organ.
He enjoyed religious instruction and attended Sunday School regularly. The nineteenth century was an age of revivalism and at the age of sixteen, he was converted at a revival meeting held at King's Chapel Church.
In 1857, the Sankey family moved to New Castle where Ira became actively involved in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He soon acquire the position as choir director and introduced the use of musical instruments for accompaniment during the service. At this time, instrumentation in the church was considered to be a sinful act and was met with much resistance. It was also at this Church that he was able to develop his voice that would be later put to much use. It is said that his voice contained great volume, richness and "sympathy" that always attracted attention when he sang. At this time he was so engrossed with his music that his father commented, 'I'm afraid he'll never amount to anything; all he does is run about the country with a hymnbook under his arm.'
In 1863, after serving in the Civil war as a Union soldier, Sankey returned to New Castle and married Frances Edwards, the daughter of a prominent family. They had three children: Henry, Edward and Allen. Allen followed in his father's musical footsteps and also became a successful composer and editor of gospel music. The family was well respected in the community where Ira was employed as a revenue collector for his father.
Sankey traveled to Indianapolis in 1870 to attend the International Convention of the YMCA, which he was a delegate to. It was here that he first met Dwight Moody. At the convention, Rev. Robert McMillan from the Princeton Presbyterian Church, complained about the poor quality of the music presented. He urged Mr. Sankey to sing when Mr. Moody stopped praying. He did so and afterwards was introduced to Moody. Mr. Moody was delighted with his talent and demanded that he quit everything and join him in Chicago immediately. After prayerfully considering the request, six months later, he and his family moved to Chicago in order to join Moody and his ministry.
June of 1873 marked the date of Ira Sankey's first trip to England with Moody. They spent two years preaching and singing to multitudes of people who came from all walks of life including members of the royal family. Throughout the country, churches, missions and the YMCA's were revitalized. [In the London campaign, a total of 285 meetings were held with a reported aggregate attendance of 2.5 million].
While in England, Sankey introduced the people to the new American songs. He saw a real need to publish the songs that were used at the meetings along with the Sunday School songs. After several dilemmas, Sankey was able to publish 500 sixteen page pamphlets entitled Sacred Songs and Solos in 1873. The book sold out in twenty-four hours. This hymnbook may have been the best selling songbook with more than 80 million copies sold.
Ira Sankey never forgot his hometown in New Castle. With the monies raised from the sale of the hymnal, he was able to donate the YMCA to the city in 1886. S. W. Foulke designed the building and it was constructed and furnished for about $43,000. Sankey also purchased the lot at the corner N. Jefferson and North Street for the First Methodist Church and helped with the funds for its construction. This church too, was designed by S. W. Foulke.
At the age of 68, Ira D. Sankey died in his Brooklyn home on August 14, 1908. He had been blind for the last five years of his life and had suffered from complications of diseases brought on by overwork.
It can be said that Ira D. Sankey, the "Sweet Singer of Sacred Songs," changed the style of Protestant church music. His contribution to gospel music stems from his role as singing evangelist. His unique portrayal of the gospel through song had a strong impact on the people. However, it is important to realize that Sankey was not only a gospel singer, but his contributions as song leader, composer, and editor-publisher are just as significant. Today we can look back and see his profound impact on hymnody of the twentieth century which has had as much influence on the church as Luther's or Watt's music. All around the world, his hymns have been sung and we credit him with more than 150 songs.
Copied in 2009 from a biography of Sankey on display at the Ira D. Sankey Collection at the Lawrence County Historical Society, New Castle, PA.
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