Though later in the field than some of his fellow-evangelists, James McGranahan is no imitator of his predecessors. He has exercised his special and peculiar gifts; and in the department of original composition has earned a very high place among the Christian musicians of his generation.
It is much too late in the day to enter on a defence of "singing the Gospel." No doubt there is—Gospel singing—and Gospel singing; and unless the singer is fully imbued with the true evangelistic spirit, and has consecrated his talent to the glory of his Master, there is a subtle danger attached to its exercise. The field that our American brethren have done so much to open up, in the direction of preaching through song, is so wide that it is a wonder it has not been more extensively occupied. If God would thoroughly convert or consecrate to this service some of our famous singers of both sexes, how much they might do as proclaimers of the everlasting Gospel! The following remarks by a recent writer in an American contemporary will, we believe, heartily commend themselves to the reader:—
God send us singing preachers like James McGranahan!—whom we believe to be as much a minister of Jesus Christ as any clergyman; and whose simple-hearted preaching has touched more hearts with a sense of Divine love than many sermons of vast ingenuity and learning. And we do not make this assertion in any disparagement of preaching, for that is God's chosen agency; but we simply enlarge the mission of the preacher, and say, if you cannot reach your people by talking about the Gospel, try singing it. The only difference is in rhyme and tune: and what does that signify?
The State of Pennsylvania has been singularly favoured in producing sweet singers. Besides Mr. McGranahan, it claims among its honoured sons, Mr. Sankey; the late Mr. P. P. Bliss; and, we believe, Mr. D. B. Towner. Mr. McGranahan began his active musical career as an alto singer, and player on the bass viol, in that American institution, the "Singing School." At the age of nineteen he was already a teacher of the science of music. In order better to qualify himself for his chosen profession, he managed to attend the Normal School, at Geneseo, New York, during the sessions of 1861 and 1862. It was there that he met Miss Addie Vickery, of Oswego, who afterwards became his wife. She has been to him a true helpmate in life's pilgrimage; giving him also most valued assistance in his musical functions during fourteen years of Institute and Convention work, and in his Gospel labours of more recent times.
It was the great railway catastrophe at Ashtabula in December, 1876,which suddenly cut short the promising career of Mr. and Mrs. P. P. Bliss, that brought Mr. McGranahan and his wife into direct evangelistic effort. It came about in a somewhat remarkable way, showing clearly the hand of God; who, it has often been remarked, "takes away His workers, but carries on His work." Mr. Bliss and Mr. McGranahan had been fast friends; and the former had often tried to convince his gifted brother that he ought to be singing the Gospel instead of teaching music. On one occasion, when walking together, they passed a meadow where the mowers were busy at work. Mr. Bliss said to his companion, "Mac, you are just like a man who stands all his time sharpening his scythe. Now, leave the teaching to others; swing in your scythe, and see the grass fall before you." Mr. McGranahan, however, was immovable. He had a strong conviction that no one should enter the Gospel field without preparation of a more specific kind than he had passed through, nor without a clear call from the Lord of the harvest. This call came to him sooner than he had anticipated, and with a sanction that he could not withstand.
The sad news of the fate of Mr. Bliss reached Mr. McGranahan when returning from a musical Convention at Delaware, Ohio; and he at once proceeded to the scene of the disaster at Ashtabula. On the same sorrowful errand came Major Whittle, who had been evangelizing with Mr. Bliss; and there the two friends of the deceased became personally acquainted for the first time. As to this critical juncture in Mr. McGranahan's life, we may reproduce a few sentences that appeared in The Christian in November, 1880, in a report of some reminiscences of Mr. Bliss given by Major Whittle at Glasgow:—
"A week before Mr. Bliss left me he was writing at the table one day; and he read to me a letter he had written. He said it was to a man he very much wanted to see in Gospel work: he could write music and sing; and Mr. Bliss wanted him to sing for the Lord. He asked me if I knew any evangelist who would go with his friend McGranahan. I said I did not know of anybody; but if he would consecrate himself to God some one would be raised up to accompany him. At Ashtabula a man came up to me and said, 'Mr. Bliss was one of my dearest friends: my name is McGranahan.' There stood before me the very man whom Mr. Bliss had chosen. We went to Chicago; and there it pleased God to give my brother a great blessing in his own soul. Among Mr. Bliss's papers that came by luggage train there were many manuscripts, and amongst others the words of the song, 'My Redeemer.' Mr. McGranahan prayed that he might be able to wed it to music. One day while sitting in my room I heard singing; and I went to listen. Then I heard for the first time the song that may be said to be Mr. Bliss's dying testimony of what Christ was to him."
It was when still engaged in arranging Mr. Bliss's manuscripts, some months after his lamented death, that Mr. McGranahan finally resolved to relinquish a purely musical career and take up the serious business of singing the Gospel. While he continued to halt between two opinions, Major Whittle suggested one day that they should together pray to God for definite guidance about the matter. He readily agreed. Both prayed; and when they rose from their knees, to Mr. McGranahan's surprise, the burden of doubt that had been pressing upon him was gone. A chain of events in connection with his former occupation came as an equal surprise, and confirmed him in the decision to step out on the new path. One by one, letters arrived from various points where musical engagements had been made, asking, for some reason or another, that these should be deferred; until every such engagement had been indefinitely postponed. All the seeming hindrances were removed; and the hand of God clearly pointed out the way. Attendance at some meetings then going on in Chicago brought to the mind both of himself and his wife a more vivid realization of the truths of the Gospel. Thus equipped and manifestly called, they entered into a happy partnership of Christian service with Major Whittle for many years. We regret to say that at a subsequent period, through the ill health of Mr. McGranahan, the share of himself and Mrs. McGranahan in the work has been necessarily suspended.
Messrs. Whittle and McGranahan first visited Great Britain in the summer of 1880. They held meetings in different parts of London, and afterwards spent some time in Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Belfast, &c. In all the places where they laboured God gave them much favour with the people; and many were the seals gained to their earnest ministry, whether by speech or by song. Their second visit to Ireland and England was in 1883-4. The best proof that their labours were acceptable is to be found in the fact that wherever they have been their presence is again earnestly longed for. They have received pressing invitations to return to Great Britain, and specially to Ireland.
As a singer, Mr. McGranahan is distinguished by an earnest, winning simplicity, coupled with artistic accuracy; though the deeper element of pathos is by no means wanting. His forte, as we have said, is strong, vigorous composition. His book, Songs of the Gospel, published during his first visit to England, contains fully as many gems of sacred song as any collection of similar size. There is a rhythmic swing about many of the melodies that makes them especially suited for popular audiences. Such songs as "My Redeemer," "I shall be satisfied," "The Crowning Day is coming," "Behold, what manner of love," and others equally good, will undoubtedly take a permanent place in the evangelistic hymnology of the churches.
In order to fully appreciate the strength and power of Mr. McGranahan's compositions it was needful to hear them rendered by himself and Mrs. McGranahan, with Major Whittle joining in occasionally with a few bass notes. Those who have not been thus favoured cannot understand how marvellous an expression the Pieces could be made to convey. It was not simply singing the words; it was an interpretation of them into soul-language. And the remembrance of this interpretation clave to the mind and heart for weeks and months after the singers had departed.
It is an open secret that the words of many of the best-known songs in the book above mentioned were written by Major Whittle, under the nom de plume of "El Nathan."
Among Mr. McGranahan's more elaborate pieces it would be difficult to surpass, for grandeur of treatment and cumulative effect, the anthem, "I am the Resurrection and the Life." Latterly he has given much attention to the composition of pieces in which the unadorned words of Scripture are wedded to striking airs and harmonies. A number of these are to be found in The Christian Choir; and they have greatly helped consecrated Christian singers in conveying vital truths at once to the ears and hearts of the multitude.
It was while holding a series of meetings in conjunction with Major Whittle in the Mechanics' Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, the "Gospel Male Choir" was called into existence. Owing to a draught which swept the rear part of the platform of the building, most of the ladies in the original choir of three hundred singers were obliged to abandon their places. With the consequent preponderance of bass and tenor voices, the thought occurred—Why not make the most of the situation, and utilize the forces to the best advantage by forming the men into a MALE CHOIR, with its first and second tenor, and first and second bass? This plan was adopted, and with much success; and in many places subsequently the Evangelists gladly availed themselves of this auxiliary method.
In fostering the growth of the "Male Choir," and furnishing many pieces arranged for their special use, Mr. McGranahan has done splendid service to the cause of the Gospel. Perhaps no one song is more sung in Mr. Moody's meetings, when a male choir takes part, than that which proclaims to the anxious soul, "By grace are ye saved through faith": it contains the Gospel message in a nutshell.
The following is a list of Mr. McGranahan's principal publications:—
Songs of the Gospel. A Selection of 148 choice, stirring Hymns, with
attractive Tunes, specially suited for Evangelistic Meetings.
The Christian Choir. A Quarto Volume of Sacred Songs, Duets, Choruses, and Anthems. (This favourite work is the joint production of Mr. Sankey and Mr. McGranahan; with contributions from other hands).
The Gospel Male Chorus Book. A Collection of New Part Songs, Choruses, Anthems, &c., written and arranged expressly for Male Voices.
The Gospel Male Chorus Book.—Additional Pieces. Containing several new Selections, arranged expressly for Male Voices.
From The Christian Portrait Gallery containing over one hundred life-like illustrations with biographic sketches. London: Morgan and Scott, [1900?].
>> More James McGranahan