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Ira David Sankey: Reminiscences

by George C. Stebbins (1846-1945)

Ira SankeyIra D. Sankey was born in the village of Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, [United States], August 28th, 1840, where he lived six years. His parents then moved to a place known as Western Reserve Harbor, and soon thereafter located on a farm, where he grew up, assisting in farm work until he was seventeen years of age.

In 1857 he, with his parents, removed to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where his father became president of a bank, and where all the family united with the Methodist Church. He took an active interest in the Sunday School of the church, and in due time became the superintendent, and also leader of the church choir.

In 1861, at the call of Abraham Lincoln for volunteers, he enlisted, and while serving in the army was instrumental in interesting the men in forming a musical club, which became known as the "Singing Boys in Blue." When his term of enlistment expired he became assistant to his father, who had been appointed by Mr. Lincoln as a collector of Internal Revenue.

From that time on his services were in demand as a singer at political gatherings and in Sunday School conventions in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio,

It was while attending the International Y. M. C. A. convention at Indianapolis in 1870 as a delegate, that he first met Mr. Moody, who, after hearing him sing, said to him:

"Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?" Mr. Sankey told him where he lived, that he was married and had two children and that he was engaged in government employ. Mr. Moody replied, "You will have to give that up and come to Chicago and help me in my work." Mr. Sankey told him he could not give up his business. Mr. Moody said, "You must; I have been looking for you for eight years." He then asked if he would go with him and pray over the matter. Sankey was much impressed by Moody's prayer and promised to take the matter under consideration. After six months of indecision he spent a week with Moody, and before that week was over he sent his resignation to his superior officer and arranged to join Mr. Moody permanently in his work.

He came to Chicago, therefore, in the early part of 1871, to assist D. L. Moody in his important church and mission work on the north side of the city, which had come into existence as the result of many years of untiring and enthusiastic labor.

In addition to his duties as leader of singing in that work, he was engaged with Mr. Moody in evangelistic work elsewhere in the city, and in towns adjacent; also in conducting the Y. M. C. A. daily noon meetings, of which Moody had long been the inspiring and militant leader.

It was at one of those meetings I met Mr. Sankey, and we soon became friends.

Occasionally when attending those meetings I was invited by him to assist in singing some selection, as Mr. Moody, even in those early days before solo singing in special meetings had become an established custom, always had Sankey, or Bliss, when available, sing special selections at every meeting.

During the eighteen months that intervened between Sankey's coming to Chicago and his going abroad with Moody to begin the work that was to make their names household words throughout the Christian world, there was little worthy of note in our relations beyond the ordinary intercourse of friends who occasionally met, save one incident that has ever been memorable to me, and that was his introducing me to Philip Phillips, who was at that time a guest in his home.

While Sankey was engaged with Moody in their work in Great Britain, I had occasional letters from him couched in the same cordial and friendly terms characteristic of him, with never the slightest intimation that he was conscious of being one of the most talked of men in the Empire; and on his return to his native land after two years of absence in which he had risen from comparative obscurity to world-wide fame, the friendly intercourse was resumed that continued unbroken the remainder of his life.

Prior to the work in which he and Moody were engaged in Great Britain, no other evangelist ever had associated with him a singer who not only assumed the direction of the musical part of the work, but whose name was linked with that of the evangelist as an associate, and everywhere given equal prominence. Nor was there before that movement the title of "Singing Evangelist," ever known. Mr. Sankey was the first to receive that designation, and he, therefore, became the pioneer of the ever growing army of consecrated singers who have for fifty years been following in his train.

Be that as it may, it is quite beyond question that he brought the service of song in evangelistic movements to the front in so striking a manner, demonstrating its importance as an aid in enforcing the claims of the gospel upon the world, that to him belongs the honor of securing for it its rightful place as a divinely appointed agency in proclaiming the Gospel of the Son of God, and establishing the custom of evangelists going about two by two, preacher and singer, preaching the Word in sermon and song.

But in giving Mr. Sankey this honor, it should be said also that Mr. Moody, more than any other evangelist of his time, recognized the powerful influence of inspiring hymns upon the people, and that to him belongs the credit of not only recognizing the fact, but of giving it the place and prominence it has had in all evangelistic movements since that time.

Mr. Moody loved Christian song as few do, even though he was unable to recognize the difference between one tune and another; he always insisted upon having enthusiastic singing, and a great deal of it, as those who were associated with him as leaders could testify from a sense of weariness bordering on exhaustion. He was ever thoughtful of those helping him, however, as it is my pleasure to testify, for he would say to me at the close of a heavy day's work just before beginning his last sermon for the day: "You slip out and go home, for I want you to be fresh for to-morrow." So it must be said that Moody recognized in a very remarkable degree that the singing of the Gospel was one of the greatest agencies in reaching the hearts of the people, and that Sankey demonstrated it in a remarkable way.

Before he entered upon his career as an evangelist he had never attempted to write music suited to evangelistic work, but soon after his work with Mr. Moody assumed such proportions abroad in 1873, he began this phase of his work which from that time forward gave him a place among the foremost writers of Gospel song. His first attempt to write for that purpose was in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the music he then wrote was his setting to Dr. Horatio Bonar's beautiful hymn, "Yet There Is Room." His second attempt was his famous hymn, "I'm Praying for You," which became one of the most useful in all the range of evangelistic hymns, and has been blessed by uncounted multitudes in all parts of the world.

I had loved and often sang the song, but its true worth and simple melody never impressed me as it did on the occasion of one of my visits to him during his last days. I was sitting by his bedside when he requested his nurse, Mr. Rosewall, to bring out the phonograph. This, with a liberal variety of records, had been provided to relieve the monotony of his days—which were all nights—and among them was a record of "I'm Praying for You," made by an unusually sweet and sympathetic baritone voice. The reproduction was all that could be desired—every word and tone being distinct and clear. As I sat there beside the great singer who had sung his last song till he joined the "Choir Invisible," the voice seemed to come from the very gates of heaven—pleading with wanderers on earth to make Him—"your Savior, too." I was conscious of an experience that comes now and again in the lives of all who love the songs of heaven and home, and the beauty of it lingers unchanged by the passing of years.

Mr. Sankey's subsequent compositions placed him among the most gifted writers of evangelistic and devotional music. Among the many of his hymns that have survived the lapse of time and are still used in all parts of the world, may be mentioned: "I'm Praying for You," "The Ninety and Nine," "Hiding in Thee," "Faith Is the Victory," "When the Mists Have Rolled Away," "Simply Trusting," "Shelter in the Time of Storm," "Under His Wings" and "There'll Be No Dark Valley."

The one that will be associated with him for possible generations yet to come, is the "Ninety and Nine," for two reasons; first, the words visualize intensely the Shepherd seeking the lost sheep—indeed the climax is almost startling. In the second place, the music (in itself quite inferior to much of Mr. Sankey's writing is admirably suited to express, in a graphic manner, that rarely beautiful story. Especially did it lend itself to Mr. Sankey's characteristic manner of singing and interpretation.

In describing the origin of the hymn, Sankey relates that when he and Moody were going from Glasgow to Edinburgh, in 1874, he chanced to see the words of the hymn in a newspaper, and it occurred to him it would make a good song for their use, and called Mr. Moody's attention to it. Later in the day they were holding a meeting in the Free Assembly Hall in the latter city. After Moody's address on the Shepherd, he asked Sankey if he had a hymn he could sing on the subject. Recalling nothing, on the spur of the moment, save the hymn found on the train, a voice whispered: "Sing it!" and, acting upon the suggestion, he took his seat at the organ, placed the words before him, and sang them to the tune that came to him spontaneously The song became a favorite at once and was used for many years to the awakening and winning back to the fold of uncounted numbers of souls.

Mr. Sankey's knowledge of the art of singing and the use of his voice was intuitive rather than through cultivation, showing that he possessed gifts of an extraordinary character to have accomplished what he did.

His voice was a high baritone of exceptional volume, purity and sympathy. Although he had no special training, he unconsciously acquired the habit of correct tone-production, which enabled him to preserve his voice uninjured through long years of hard usage—even to the end of his public career.

His interpretation of songs was his own conception; and in his rendering of them he always kept before him the importance of making the subject of the hymn stand out in great distinctness, even though it did violence sometimes to the accepted rules of musical phrasing. Seated at a low top organ with which he always accompanied himself he, without ostentation, sang his messages into the hearts and consciences of people in a way that justly made him famous as an interpreter of evangelistic song.

In further accounting for the remarkable influence he exerted through his singing, personality should be taken into consideration. He was forceful, and for want of a better term to describe the indefinable, he was magnetic. He had an attractive face, in which there was sympathy and buoyancy of spirit always manifest. His sincerity in the consecration of his voice to the service of his fellowmen, made him, under God, the great evangel of song that he was.

In addition to the spiritual trend of Mr. Sankey's nature, which was always evidenced in a wholesome and unaffected way, he was one of the most companionable of men and loyal of friends, As was the case with Moody, he had a keen sense of humor,—loved to laugh and to make others laugh by his bright, humorous incidents and stories—a trait that was not lacking even when in later years disease had reduced him to a shadow of his former physique.

I once heard him tell an incident that occurred in his youth. He was one day riding horseback, and as it was raining, he held an umbrella over him; suddenly his horse took fright, reared and plunged forward entirely from under him, leaving him sitting in the muddy road with the umbrella still over his head. This he told to Mr. Moody, upon whom it made such an impression that he never quite got over laughing, whenever it occurred to him, over his friend's predicament, for he loved nothing better than a joke on Mr. Sankey.

Another amusing experience Mr. Sankey relates in a book he brought out the last year or two of his life, entitled "Sankey's Story of the Gospel Hymns," published by the Sunday School Times Company, in which he gives a brief sketch of his life and work, and from which some of the data herein are taken.

"During all our campaigns abroad, it was our custom to rest on Saturdays, whenever it was convenient. While at Sunderland, one Saturday, we took a cab and drove northward along the seashore. Coming to an almost perpendicular cliff rising high above the sea, we descended by a stairway to the beach below. For a while we enjoyed ourselves walking along the beach examining the beautiful shells left exposed by the tide which had gone out. Our attention was soon arrested by some one shouting from the top of the cliff. We saw a man wildly beckoning us to return, and on looking around discovered that the tide had filled the channel between us and the stairway. It was clear that we had no time to lose. Mr. Moody suggested that I should plunge in and lead the way to the cliff as soon as possible, which I did, and while doing so, he stood looking on convulsed with laughter at my frantic strides through the water over slippery stones. But I reached a place of safety. Then the tables turned, and it was my opportunity to enjoy a sight not soon forgotten, as my friend slowly and with difficulty waded through the rising tide to the place where I stood. We were to hold a Bible reading that afternoon at 3 o'clock, and, not having time to go to our lodgings for a change of apparel, we proceeded to the place of meeting and held the service in our wet clothing."

Another experience that is of historical interest, specially as it was connected with another famous evangelist, he relates as follows: "When Mr. Moody and I were holding meetings in London in 1874, we took a drive, one Saturday, out to Epping Forest. There we visited a gipsy camp. While stopping to speak to two brothers, who had been converted and were doing good missionary work, a few young gipsy lads came up to our carriage. I put my hand on the head of one boy and said, "May the Lord make a preacher out of you, my boy." Fifteen years later, when Gipsy Smith first came to this country, I had the pleasure of taking him about Brooklyn. While passing through Prospect Park, he asked me: ‘Do you remember driving out of London one day to Epping Forest?'

"I replied that I did. ‘Do you remember a little boy standing by your carriage, and of your putting a hand on his head and saying, "My boy, I hope the Lord will make a preacher out of you"?' 'Yes,' I replied, ‘I remember it very well.' ‘I am that boy,' said Gipsy. My surprise can better be imagined than described, for little did I think that the successful evangelist and fine singer of whom I had heard so much, and whom I admired, was that little boy I had met at the gipsy camp."

Another very striking incident occurred that illustrates in a very graphic way the extraordinary favor he and Mr. Moody enjoyed in Great Britain during that memorable campaign of 1873-1875: An actor at the Royal Theatre in Manchester, England, one night sang a doggerel beginning with the words, "We know that Moody and Sankey are doing some good in their way." It received cheers and hisses from the audience at first, but on a repetition of the words the manifestation of displeasure was so great that the comedian was obliged to leave the stage. Also at a circus in Dublin, on one occasion, one clown said to another: "I feel Moody to-night," and the other said, "I feel Sankeymonious." This byplay was not only met with hisses, but the whole audience arose and joined with tremendous effect in singing one of our hymns, "Hold the Fort, for I Am Coming."

The last work of importance undertaken by Mr. Sankey was in the winter of 1898-99 in Great Britain, where he conducted services of "Sacred Song and Story" in thirty cities and towns, which were everywhere attended by throngs. On his return to this country he became conscious that he had overtaxed his strength, and from that time on during the years that remained, he attempted no work of an exacting nature, giving only an occasional service of song and assisting in the music at Northfield.

His work abroad undermined his strong constitution, and a gradual decline set in that could not be arrested. About two years before his death his sight failed, and total blindness followed in a comparatively short time.

My relations with Mr. Sankey began in 1876, when I became associated with the evangelists, and grew into the closest friendship when we, with James McGranahan, became editors of the series of "Gospel Hymns" as used in the Moody campaigns. In the early eighties we became closely adjoining residents of Brooklyn, which brought us frequently together as neighbors and friends.

Those years of fellowship in the work were memorable ones—being the years of greatest activities in this country of the evangelists and those associated in their work.

During the last two years of Mr. Sankey's life I visited him every few days, and we had delightful times reviewing experiences of the past. In spite of his emaciated condition and his total blindness, he was ever the same cordial and companionable friend he had always been. His humor would often manifest itself in recalling some amusing incident, laughing as he told it, apparently enjoying to the full each scene as he lived it over again.

But it was plain to be seen that his mind and heart had long been set on his home-going, for the subject would so often intrude our conversations. Once he said, "George, you will find me on Spurgeon Street, when you get up there." And often at the close of a visit did he say: "George, I want you to be at the church next Sunday, (the church known as Dr. Cuyler's, of which he had been a member for many years) for I'll be there, as I am going home."

He had so longed to be "absent from the body and present with the Lord," that his passing had become an obsession with him.

That time came in August 1908. I was at Northfield conducting the singing at the annual conference—a work he and I had done yearly from the beginning of those occasions in 1880—but I was "at the church" when he was taken there to receive the last marks of affection and love from his host of friends and looked for the last time upon the face of the great singer who had gone to join the choir of the redeemed on high.

From George C. Stebbins: Reminiscences and Gospel Hymn Stories by Himself. New York: George H. Doran Company, ©1924.

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