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Ira David Sankey: Obituary

Ira SankeyIra D. Sankey, the noted hymn writer, singer and evangelist, who died Thursday night at his home, 148 South Oxford Street, Brooklyn, was for many years the associate of Dwight L. Moody, says the New York Sun. He had been an invalid and blind for about five years, but in spite of his severe infirmities his mind remained clear almost until the last. He had long lived such a retired life that most people believed that he had died years ago and Mr. Sankey himself used to tell of an argument he had with a man on a train as to whether or not he was dead.

He had been a resident of Brooklyn for twenty-seven years and until seven years ago, the Sun goes on to say, when he joined the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, he was a Methodist.

It was in 1870 at an international Y.M.C.A. convention held in Indianapolis that young Sankey, at that time a deputy collector in the internal revenue service, first met another young man named Moody, who used to be a shoe clerk and was then the unlicensed pastor of a church in Chicago. While both were evangelists of an order, neither one had become especially well known, but there they struck up a partnership in religious work that has done more for Methodism than any other movement since Wesley.

Ira D. Sankey was born in Edinburg, Lawrence county in the western part of Pennsylvania, on August 28, 1840. He came of English stock on his father's side and of Scotch-Irish ancestry on his mother's. Young Ira was one of nine children, of whom only three reached maturity. His father was a Methodist preacher who at one time served in the state senate and was well off.

The boy's musical and religious tendencies both appeared at an early age, and upon the family's removal to New Castle, where he joined the church at the age of fifteen they received recognition together when he was made superintendent of the Sunday school and choir leader. At the same time he became president of the local Y.M.C.A. It is said his voice was never sweeter than in those days. The country folk used to come from miles around to hear him sing on a Sunday.

In 1860 Mr. Sankey was among the first to respond to Lincoln's call for volunteers, but even in the service he did not neglect his religious work. The bivouac camp meetings that he organized are still remembered by the veterans of the Twelfth Pennsylvania Volunteers, with which he served.

At the expiration of his enlistment he became a deputy in the internal revenue service under his father, who had been appointed a collector, but he still retained his interest in religion. Religious conventions and other gatherings, hearing of Mr. Sankey's powers as a singer, became eager for him to lead their praise services, and it was in this way that he met Mr. Moody. As the story goes, Mr. Moody, who was as devoid apparently of all musical sense as was Dean Swift, heard him render a revival hymn at the International Y.M.C.A. convention held in Indianapolis in 1870. Turning to his neighbor, Mr. Moody asked with some excitement, "Who is that man over there that sings so?"

The neighbor was H. K. Porter, president of the Y.M.C.A. in Pittsburg. He knew Sankey very well and told Mr. Moody all about him and his fine voice.

"Well," Mr. Moody rejoined, "I don't know anything about his fine voice, but I do know that he feels every word he sings and believes every word he feels. I want to meet that man. Bring him over to the hotel."

Six months later Sankey was ¬†assisting Moody at the latter's church in Illinois Street in Chicago. They never separated afterward except twice—once for three months when the Chicago fire burnt them out and again when Mr. Moody left Mr. Sankey in charge of his new church, the New Tabernacle, while he went to England on his first foreign tour. It was during Mr. Moody's absence that Mr. Sankey composed many of his gospel tunes. During what leisure time he had Mr. Sankey gathered or composed a number of spirited songs fitted for evangelical services. They were all written on the principle as he himself said, of melody rather than harmony, with the idea that "tunes which will move the multitudes must come from the heart."

All the songs he made up during this time he put in a scrapbook, which was the only book he carried abroad with him save the Bible, when Mr. Moody called him over to assist in the revival. From the time of the great English tour, in 1873-75, till the time of Mr. Moody's death, in 1899, the two evangelists were never separated. They had addressed some of the biggest audiences of modern times. Agriculture Hall, London, which seats 20,000, was the scene of many of their meetings, and it was always full. In New York their meetings were held for the most part in the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, and the Rink, Brooklyn; the Brooklyn Tabernacle, or in Carnegie Hall. In these New York meetings Mr. Sankey sometimes had a choir of as many as 500 voices under his leadership.

Despite the striking character of the work in which they were engaged, neither Sankey nor Moody wanted the least publicity. It is related of the two that upon one of their tours to England they received an offer from an English photographer of L1,000 in gold if they would allow him to take their picture and sell the photograph. Moody replied briefly that they were evangelists, not showmen.

In appearance, Mr. Sankey was a man of large stature, erect and of powerful physique, with a manner full of animation, enthusiasm and earnestness. The most prominent physical characteristic was his chest, which was forty-eight inches around. His voice was a fine natural baritone covering two octaves, though he never appeared to have cultivated it. He never sang a hymn in the same way twice or even the second verse of a tune as he sang the first.

"Why should I?" he asked once. "The words are different, the meaning is different, and so the rendering must be different."

He used to maintain that he was a preacher as much as Mr. Moody, "the only difference being that he reaches men's hearts with words that are spoken, while I reach them with words that are sung."

His manner of composing his hymns was as naïve as was his delivery of them. He put them together "by inspiration," stopping suddenly in the midst of his reading or talking to jot down a bit of melody that came to him. These jottings he gathered together and developed at his leisure, sometimes fitting them to words chosen from his scrapbook of "verses that lift" and sometimes getting another hymn writer like Miss Fannie Crosby to fit new words.

"If you plant the germ of a song or an idea," he was fond of saying, "it will grow of itself." Sometimes again he improvised his music to words that moved him particularly, as he did in the case of his hymn, "The Ninety and Nine," to which he made up the music "as he went along" before a great audience in Edinburgh, Scotland. He always accompanied himself on a little organ which he carried with him wherever he went.

The books issued under his name include "The Gospel Choir," "The Male Choir," "Christian Endeavor Hymn Book," "Sankey's Story of the Gospel Hymns," and "My Life and My Sacred Songs." Among the hundreds of hymns he composed some of the best known are "The Ninety and Nine," "There'll Be No Dark Valley," "A Shelter in the Time of Storm," "When the Mists Are Rolled Away," and "Faith is the Victory." He has also compiled "Sacred Songs and Solos," "Gospel Hymns," "Winnowed Songs" for Sunday schools and "Young People's Songs of Praise." There are several books of which it is said that their circulation is second only to that of the Bible. Among them are "Robinson Crusoe" and  "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but it is doubtful if the combined sales of both books would equal that of the "Gospel Hymns," of which over 50,000,000 have been printed.

Mr. Sankey is reported to have received $500,000 or more in royalties, most of which he gave away. Since the establishment of the Northfield School of Bible Study by Moody and Sankey he has turned over every penny that he received from his music to this institution.

When Mr. Moody died, in 1899, Mr. Sankey attempted to carry on the gospel work alone and broke down in the attempt. In May, 1902, he canceled most of his evangelical engagements, but continued to do editorial work. About this time also he created a little stir by leaving the Methodist church to join the Presbyterian, not as the result of a disagreement with the Methodists, but rather largely from personal friendship for Dr. Theodore L. Cuyler. Then his eyesight failed him, and after an unsuccessful operation for glaucoma in 1903 he became permanently blind. For two years or more the report has been circulated at intervals that Mr. Sankey was slowly dying.

Mr. Sankey married Fanny V. Edwards in 1863. She and two sons survive him. The sons are Ira Allan Sankey, of the Biglow & Main Company, publishers of religious music, and Edward Sankey.

Originally published in The Emporia Daily Gazette, August 20, 1908.

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