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James McGranahan: Reminiscences

by George C. Stebbins (1846-1945)

James McGranahanDramatic in its setting was the first meeting of Major Whittle and Mr. McGranahan, men who were destined to become known and loved on two continents.

They had each gone to Ashtabula in what proved to be a vain quest for some trace of their mutual friends, Mr. and Mrs. P. P. Bliss, who had lost their lives in one of the greatest railway disasters in our country’s history. Mr. McGranahan, recognizing the Major, although they were strangers to each other, stepped up to him and said: "Mr. Bliss was one of my dearest friends; my name is McGranahan."

Mr. Bliss had frequently spoken to the Major of McGranahan as being a man who should devote his talent to the Lord’s work. These facts flashed to mind as the salutation was given, and he said to himself, "Here stands the very man that is needed to take Mr. Bliss' place." He invited McGranahan to visit him in Chicago where he was conducting the meetings inaugurated by Moody and Sankey—they having gone on to their next campaign. McGranahan accepted the invitation, and I well remember his coming and the pleasure it gave me to meet him. I was there assisting the Major in the meetings referred to.

During Mr. McGranahan’s visit he realized that he had come to the parting of the ways in his career, and that it was necessary for him to make choice between continuing the pursuit of his profession or entering the evangelistic field. That it was a difficult problem to solve may be judged by the fact that he had up to that time made a flattering success in his convention and institute work; and to leave it for an untried field in which he greatly doubted his fitness, made it doubly difficult for him to choose. He made it a matter of prayer, however, and was providentially led to resign his professional duties and devote the rest of his life to the spread of the Gospel by voice and pen.

At the close of the meetings we were then engaged in, he joined Major Whittle, taking the place Mr. Bliss had so acceptably filled, and continued with him for ten years in this country and Great Britain, when his failing health obliged him to retire from all public activities.

Mr. McGranahan’s entering at that time upon this phase of his career was timely, as there were few efficient leaders and singers to supply the increasing demand for men qualified to assist evangelists. He also came to it well equipped as a leader and trainer of choirs, and as a soloist and writer—in all of which he proved to be an outstanding figure in the ranks of evangelists, and a great acquisition to their forces.

While on the visit to Chicago referred to, he wrote the music of "My Redeemer," the words of which were found with other manuscripts in Mr. Bliss’ trunk that escaped the wreck at Ashtabula. Before his leaving Chicago it was decided to have it sung in the tabernacle services, and also that it would be well to have it sung by four men’s voices. The music was arranged accordingly and two of the most prominent baritone soloists of the city were secured, they singing the lower parts, Mr. McGranahan taking the alto, an octave higher, and I the melody.

A great audience was present in the tabernacle. The Major related the finding of the words among Mr. Bliss’ effects, and Mr. McGranahan’s setting them to music, which awakened a keen interest among the people, thus preparing the way for a sympathetic hearing. The music was attractive and lent itself readily to an arrangement for male voices, which happily in this instance blended admirably, and the words were all the more impressive as being—practically—Mr. Bliss’ dying testimony to what Christ was to him.

The singing of the new song under those circumstances served to launch it on its world-wide mission of praise to the Redeemer.

I recall very vividly an experience I had with this hymn some months after the music was composed. I had been singing it a great deal in New England, and near the close of our meetings in one city, an Edison phonograph—the most startling invention of that age—was being exhibited. It was suggested that if I could be secured to sing into it and the fact made known in the community, it might serve to bring a larger number of people to the entertainment. I was accordingly invited to "make a record," as it is now called, which I did in the hall where the meetings had recently been held, and the selection I chose was "My Redeemer."

The record was made on a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, which was turned by hand both in recording and reproducing, as the mechanical device now in use had not been provided at that time, and when it was made I stepped aside and heard myself sing.

I remember as if it were but yesterday the novel experience, as I had never seen a phonograph before, and the hearing of my own voice, and every word with striking distinctness enunciated, and even my characteristic manner of singing, modulation of voice and phrasing, produced a unique sensation.

As Mr. Moody was the recognized leader of the evangelistic movement that had its beginning in Great Britain in the early seventies, and which continued on this side the sea for some years afterwards, he had associated with him a number of evangelists whose movements were more or less subject to his control. This came to be the case with Mr. McGranahan, as it was mine from the beginning of my connection with the movement in 1876, a year prior to his joining.

He began writing at once, and it soon became evident that he would be a valuable accession to the editorial staff when other books were to be compiled.

Mr. McGranahan’s hymns came into popular favor at once, which made a very important addition to the comparatively limited number of new hymns available that were suited to evangelistic work. He was not a prolific writer, as that phrase is understood. The most notable features of his work, as a composer, were originality as expressed in his attractive and flowing melodies, his musicianly skill in the treatment of his themes, and painstaking care in adapting his music to the truth to be sung.

His hymns were in great favor at home and abroad, and are still used, although nearly two generations have passed, which speaks well for their enduring qualities. As an illustration from my own experience of their popularity on the other side of the sea may be cited an incident that occurred when I was assisting Mr. Moody in the fall of 1892, his last work abroad. We had been holding meetings in the principal cities in England, closing with a ten days’ mission in Spurgeon’s Tabernacle in London. During one of those meetings Mr. Moody received from the present Queen (then Princess May of Teck, who, with her mother, the Duchess of Teck, were in the audience) a request that I sing Mr. McGranahan’s beautiful hymn, "Sometime We'll Understand." The request was complied with.

This incident is interesting for two reasons, first, as illustrating the favor with which our hymns were received in that country; and, second, as an indication that they have found their way into the palaces of Royalty, as into the homes of the people. It may be mentioned also as indicating the interest the present Queen of that great Empire takes in religious matters.

Of the number of Mr. McGranahan’s hymns that have been held in popular favor for so many years, and still are, may be cited:

"My Redeemer," "Sometime We'll Understand," "Shall You, Shall I?" "There Shall Be Showers of Blessing," "Are You Coming Home To-night?" "I Shall Be Satisfied," "Behold, What Manner of Love," "Hallelujah for the Cross," "The Crowning Day Is Coming," and "That Will Be Heaven for Me."

In Mr. McGranahan’s personality there were combined many graces that go to make up a well rounded character; among which were a gentleness and cheerfulness and an unaffected simplicity of nature that made him by the grace of God the lovable and attractive man he was, and that won for him the friendship of all who knew him. In his career as an evangelist he impressed those who came under his influence as being a man not only endowed with rare gifts, but one singularly pure in character, with a simple, unwavering faith in his Lord and in the work committed to him.

James McGranahan was born July 4, 1840, in Pennsylvania, near Adamsyille, and spent his boyhood on a farm. During those years he obtained his first instruction in music in a country "singing school," such as was in vogue in those years. In the same manner, Sankey, Bliss, myself and many others learned to "read notes," for it was my good fortune to have had the unique pleasure of attending those never-to-be-forgotten evenings of song, which attracted the young people for miles around. From this beginning I became a teacher, as did McGranahan, who became noted as the most prominent singing master in that part of the state. From this line of work he later entered the field as a leader of conventions, and in the course of time became associated with Dr. George F. Root and other eminent teachers in their summer Institute work.

During his preparation for this latter work, he studied voice under Bassini, and harmony with J. C. D. Parker, and later with George Macfarren of London. His voice was a tenor of rare sweetness and purity, and was considered one of great dramatic possibilities. He, therefore, brought to the field of evangelism a beautiful and well-trained voice, a superior ability as a conductor of singing, and a rare talent as a composer, and laid them at the feet of his Lord.

As already stated, after ten years of active labor in the evangelistic field, he was forced by failing health to retire to private life. His remaining years, even to the last, were spent in writing songs for his Master’s use.

He passed away July 9, 1907, at his home at Kinsman, Ohio, at the age of sixty-seven years, serene in his confidence in the grace of God and in His written words, resting upon his favorite verse, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me hath everlasting life." John 6:47.

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

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