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Ira David Sankey

In the good providence of God, the Gospel Preacher was given the Gospel Singer, that they might go forth together, like the first disciples sent out by the Lord—double for fellowship, single in heart—to labor as yoke-fellows in the harvest-field of the world. The first, as we have seen, had been trained in the rugged school of adversity and self-denial, that he might be bold, self-reliant, patient, fearless, venturesome in deeds of faith, and tireless in labors of love. His companion, on the contrary, was reared under the hallowing influences of a happy, Christian homestead, so that his whole character was mellowed by the sweetening experiences of a childhood and manhood developed harmoniously and joyously. So strangely diverse was their training as individuals. Yet so wisely ordered were all the events of these isolated lives by the Master's hand, these two Christian workers when joined together and tested, were found to be admirably fitted to supplement each other's deficiencies, and thus to constitute a human instrumentality which the Lord could use for glorifying himself and extending his kingdom upon earth.

Ira SankeyIra David Sankey was born on the 28th of August, 1840. His birthplace was the village of Edinburgh, Lawrence county, in western Pennsylvania [United States]. On the paternal side he came of English stock, and on the maternal, of Scotch-Irish. His parents were natives of Mercer county, and were members of the Methodist Episcopal church. Out of their family of nine children, only three sons and one daughter grew up to maturity. David, the father, was well off in worldly circumstances, and in such good repute among his neighbors that they repeatedly elected him a member of the state legislature. He was also a licensed exhorter in his own church. Thus the means and the character of this household were such as to insure ample advantages for culture in general knowledge and spiritual truth.

Ira, from his childhood, was noted for his joyous spirit and trustful disposition. The sunshiny face that is so attractive in his public ministry, has been a distinguishing feature from early boyhood, and very early won him the praise of being "the finest little fellow in the neighborhood." His father states: "There was nothing very remarkable in his early or boyhood history. The gift of singing developed in him at a very early age. I say gift, because it was God-given; he never took lessons from any one, but his taste for music was such that when a small boy he could make passible music on almost any kind of instrument." An old Scotch farmer, named Frazer, early interested himself in the little lad; and of his good influence Mr. Sankey thus spoke, at a children's meeting held in the town of Dundee, Scotland: "The very first recollection I have of anything pertaining to religious life was in connection with him. I remember he took me by the hand, along with his own boys, to the Sabbath-school,—that old place which I shall remember to my dying day. He was a plain man, and I can see him standing up and praying for the children. He had a great, warm heart, and the children all loved him. It was years after that when I was converted, but my impressions were received when I was very young, from that man."

Thus reared in a genial, religious atmosphere, liked and respected by all who knew him and accepted as a leader by his boyish comrades, Ira lived on till past his fifteenth year before his soul was converted to Christ. His conviction as a sinner occurred while he attended a series of special services held in a little church three miles from his home, and of which Rev. H. H. Moore was then pastor. At first, he was as merry as his curious companions. But an earnest Christian met him each evening with a few soul-searching words; and after a week's hard struggle, he came as a sinner to the Savior and found peace in acceptance. Soon after, when his father removed to Newcastle to assume the presidency of the bank, Ira became a member of the Methodist church, and also a pupil at the academy in Newcastle.

This young Christian was richly endowed with a talent for singing spiritual songs. His pure, beautiful voice gave a clear utterance to the emotions of his sympathetic, joyous nature, and was potent in carrying messages from his heart to the hearts of his hearers. It now became his delight to devote this precious gift to the service of his Lord, and it was his continual prayer that the Holy Spirit would bless the words sung to the conversion of those who flocked to the services to hear him. Before he attained his majority he was appointed superintendent of the Sunday-school, which contained above three hundred scholars; and it was blessed with a continual revival. His singing of the gospel invitations in solos dates from this time. These sweet hymns were sung in the very spirit of prayer, and the faith of the singer was rewarded with repeated blessings. A class of seventy Christians was committed to his charge, and this weighty responsibility made him a more earnest student of the Holy Bible. He encouraged his class to tell him of their condition in Bible language, as texts abounded for every state of grace, and every description of religious feeling. The choir of the congregation also came under his leadership. Young as he was, he insisted on conduct befitting praise-singers in the house of God, and on a clear enunciation of each word sung.

These congenial religious duties were suspended for a time by the call of the nation to arms upon the fall of Fort Sumter. Mr. Sankey was among the first to volunteer for three mouths, and he served out his term of enlistment. Even in camp he gathered about him a band of singers, and was an earnest worker in the prayer-meetings of soldiers. Upon his return home, he became an assistant to his father as collector of internal revenue. He held that position with credit till his voluntary resignation, nearly ten years later.

On the 9th of September, 1863, he was married to Miss Edwards, a helpful member of his choir and teacher in his school. Their happy family now contains three sons, of whom the youngest was born in Scotland, while the eldest, Henry, is already a boy evangelist.

Mr. Sankey is an artless, and not an artistic singer. It has chanced that he has never studied music under a cultured teacher, and hence he has always relied upon his intuitive genius for song. He sings just like a nightingale, and pours forth his whole heart in a flood of melody. And he does this not for the sake of winning praise for the skill of his execution, or for the beauty of his rich baritone voice. Such a use would be a profanation of the talent which he has dedicated to the service of his Savior. His sole aspiration is that his song may be blessed to the bearing of gospel truth into the hearts of his audience. Hence he makes each articulation distinct and audible, sings with the whole wealth of his heart, and hallows the hymn for good unto souls by secret prayer.

As he sought only to honor his Lord, the latter has honored him before men. Conventions and other religious gatherings became eager to have him lead their services of praise, and he kept all such engagements without making any charge. He assisted in organizing a Young Men's Christian Association at Newcastle, and was elected president. In June, 1871, he was appointed its delegate to the International Convention, which met at Indianapolis. It was there that he first met Mr. Moody, and heard a call from him to give his whole time henceforth to working for the Master. At the early prayer-meeting, the singing was dull and doleful until Mr. Sankey was called forward to act as leader. His sweet voice and fervid spirit at once brought the bold evangelist to his side. "Where do you live?" asked Mr. Moody, bluntly. "In Newcastle, Pennsylvania." "Are you married?" "Yes." "How many children have you?" "One." "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." "I will think of it; I will pray over it; I will talk it over with my wife."

Prayer and reflection deepened the conviction which this call made on Mr. Sankey's heart. With painful reluctance, he severed the associations so dear to him at his home, and in the spirit of faith joined Mr. Moody in his vast labor as an evangelist in Chicago. His tender sympathy and loving manner qualified him to give just the sweet melody needed to modulate the fiery boldness of the lay preacher. Here they worked together in harmony, and were blessed with many souls as their hire, until the city of Chicago was swept by a storm of fire in the following October. These companions then lost all their possessions and had to separate. Mr. Sankey now rejoined his family in Pennsylvania, and set about singing for conventions again, until a telegram from Mr. Moody, three months later, to "Come at once," recalled him to the work of the new Tabernacle in Chicago. This disaster strengthened instead of shattering the trustful faith of these evangelists, for it opened the hearts of the people more readily to receive their message of the Savior's love, and made the frame building a sanctuary for relieving the bodily and spiritual wants of multitudes of the homeless.

Just in the midst of this season of trial Mr. Sankey was very much encouraged by the testimony of a little dying girl. This incident, which was destined to have an effect upon his whole after life, was thus narrated by him at Dundee, Scotland: "I want to speak a word about singing, not only to the little folks, but to grown people. During the winter after the great Chicago fire, when the place was built up with little frame houses for the people to stay in, a mother sent for me one day to come and see her little child, who was one of our Sabbath-school scholars. I remembered her very well, having seen her in the meetings very frequently, and was glad to go. She was lying in one of those poor little huts, everything having been burned in the fire. I ascertained that she was past all hope of recovery, and that they were waiting for the little one to pass away. 'How is it with you to-day?' I asked. With a beautiful smile on her face, she said, "It is all well with me to-day. I wish you would speak to my father and mother.' 'But,' said I, 'are you a Christian?' 'Yes.' 'When did you become one?' 'Do you remember, last Thursday, in the Tabernacle, when we had that little singing meeting, and you sang 'Jesus Loves Even Me?' 'Yes.' 'It was last Thursday. I believed on the Lord Jesus, and now I am going to be with him to-day.' That testimony from that little child in that neglected quarter of Chicago, has done more to stimulate me and bring me to this country, than all that the papers or any persons might say. I remember the joy I had in looking upon that beautiful face. She went up to heaven, and no doubt said she learned upon the earth that Jesus loved her from that little hymn. If you want to enjoy a blessing, go to the bedsides of these bedridden and dying ones, and sing to them of Jesus, for they cannot enjoy these meetings as you do. You will get a great blessing to your own souls."

The joy of having this first convert through his own ministry of song led the gospel singer to a more thorough reliance on the leading of his Master and a still deeper study of God's Word. When Mr. Moody paid a visit to England in the spring of 1872, his yoke-fellow was naturally left to act as leader in the services at the Tabernacle. His leisure hours at this time were spent in gathering a number of spirited hymns that appeared to be adapted for evangelistic services, and in fitting a few of them with appropriate music. These were arranged into a "Musical Scrap Book," and that was the only book, besides his Bible, that he took with him on the voyage of faith across the Atlantic. Among these sacred songs were P. P. Bliss' "Hold the Fort," "Jesus Loves Even Me," and "Free from the Law;" Mrs. Griswold's "We're Going Home To-morrow;" Mrs. E. Codner's "Lord, I hear of Showers of Blessing;" Mrs. W. S. Ackerman's "Nothing but Leaves;" Rev. R. Lowry's "Shall we Gather at the river;" Miss Anna Warner's "One More Day's Work for Jesus;" Kate Hankey's "I Love to Tell the Story;" Mrs. A. S. Hawks' "I Need Thee Every Hour;" Mrs. Lydia Baxter's "Take the Name of Jesus With you;" Mrs. Emily S. Oakey's "Sowing the Seed by the Daylight Fair;" Fanny J. Crosby's "Safe in the Arms of Jesus," and "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior;" Rev. Joseph H. Gilmore's "He Leadeth Me;" and Rev. W. W. Walford's" Sweet Hour of prayer."

Two other chief favorites of his selection were "Ninety and Nine" and "Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By." The first of these was written by Miss Elizabeth C. Clephane, of Melrose, Scotland, in 1868, and was printed a little while before her death, in the Daily Treasury, edited Dr. Arnott. Six years elapsed before it came, providentially, to Mr. Sankey's notice; while he was in Scotland. It chanced that he bought, among other religious weeklies, a copy of The Christian Age, of London, of the date of May 13, 1874, and found the "Ninety and Nine" reprinted as a poetical waif. He was at once so impressed with its value for his mission of gospel song that he composed an air for it, and sang it three days later in the Free Assembly Hall, Edinburgh. A letter of thanks from the sister of the poet gave him the facts of its authorship, and led to the receipt of one other precious hymn, "Beneath the Cross of Jesus," which now appears as the forty-ninth in "Gospel Hymns." Miss [Emma] Campbell was the author of "Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By." Her heart was deeply moved by a revival at Newark, N. J., in 1864, and her imagination was fired by an address by R. G. Pardee, on the reply to blind Bartimeus: "They told him that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by." The second stanza is given herewith, as it is omitted in the common version:

E'en children feel the potent spell,
And haste their new-found joy to tell;
In crowds they to the place repair
Where Christians daily bow in prayer.
Hosannas mingle with the cry:
"Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.'

In the spring of 1873, two paths of usefulness were opened to the choice of Mr. Sankey. His brother evangelist desired his aid for a visitation to Great Britain, while Philip Phillips offered him brilliant prospects for a singing term of six months on the Pacific coast. His decision was destined to be of great moment to the welfare of his generation. He looked to prayer for guidance, and then was led to adopt this advice of a friend: "Two workers in the same line, especially two singers, are sure not to agree. Go with Moody; then you can do your work, and he can do his, and there will be no occasion of conflict between you." So, attended by his little family, he trustfully set forth on a journey of four thousand miles, on a mission of gospel evangelization which was to attain far grander results for good than one could dare to hope.

The joyous, prayerful singing of the gospel in hymns by Mr. Sankey, came like a revelation of unexpected truth and grace to the Scottish and English peoples. In Scotland especially, to the surprise of all who are acquainted with the cautious, distrustful and clannish character of the followers of John Knox, the masses were moved with an indescribable impulse. The unimpassioned worshipers, who had been accustomed for generations to reject as uninspired all other services of praise than their own rude, unpoetic version of the psalms, now listened with a hungry delight to the testimonies of spiritual song, as it fell like a blessing from the lips of the most gifted Christian singer of the age. His intense earnestness made the old, old story enter as a divine message into the consciences and hearts of those who came to hear him out of curiosity, or as doubters. Thus the singing of hymns and the use of a melodeon as an accompaniment were welcomed at sight with a heartiness that dissipated the prejudices of centuries.

One of his hearers, Mrs. Barbour, thus described the abiding impressions made on his audiences at Edinburgh: "Mr. Sankey sings with the conviction that souls are receiving Jesus between one note and the next. The stillness is overawing; some of the lines are more spoken than sung. The hymns are equally used for awakening, none more than 'Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.' When you hear the 'Ninety and Nine' sung, you know of a truth that down in this corner, up in that gallery, behind that pillar which hides the singer's face from the listener, the hand of Jesus has been finding this and that and yonder lost one, to place them in his fold. A certain class of hearers come to the services solely to hear Mr. Sankey, and the song throws the Lord's net around them. We asked Mr. Sankey one day what he was to sing. He said, 'I'll not know till I hear how Mr. Moody is closing.' Again, we were driving to the Canongate Parish Church one winter night, and Mr. Sankey said to the young minister who had come for him, 'I'm thinking of singing "I am so glad" to-night. 'Oh!' said the young man, 'please do rather sing "Jesus of Nazareth." An old man told me to-day that he had been awakened by it the last night you were down. He said, "It just went through me like an electric shock." A gentleman in Edinburgh was in distress of soul, and happened to linger in a pew after the noon-meeting. The choir had remained to practice, and began 'Free from the Law, Oh happy condition.' Quickly the Spirit of God carried that truth home to the awakened conscience, and he was at rest in the finished work of Jesus."

"The wave of sacred song," she added, "has spread over Ireland, and is now sweeping through England. But, indeed, it is not being confined to the United Kingdom alone. Far away off on the shores of India, and in many other lands, these sweet songs of a Savior's love are being sung. Mr. Sankey's collection of sacred songs has been translated into five or six languages, and are winging their way into tens of thousands of hearts and homes, and the blessing of the Lord seems to accompany them wherever sung." ...

[Published in 1883; Ira Sankey died in 1908.]


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from "The Gospel Awakening"... edited by L. T. Remlap [pseud.]. Chicago: Fairbanks and Palmer Pub. Co., ©1883.

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