Sankey looked out across the dense crowd that completely filled the huge Free Assembly Hall of Edinburgh, and wondered what he should sing. Doctor Horatius Bonar had just climaxed Moody's sermon with a few challenging remarks on the Good Shepherd, the theme of the evening, when Moody called on Sankey for a solo. He thought of singing the Twenty-third Psalm. This would fit in with the sermon topic, but it had been used before; and besides, he knew that if he sang it every Scotchman in the audience would sing with him. Then he remembered a poem he had pasted in his scrapbook.
On their way from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Sankey had purchased a penny newspaper, hoping to find something in it about America. The only thing in it about his homeland, however, was a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher, and so he laid it down. Later on, because of the lack of anything else to read, he picked up the sheet and began to scan the advertisements. In one of the corners of the paper he noticed a little poem. It was a good one. He made up his mind that it would make a great gospel hymn.
Turning to Mr. Moody, Sankey told him about it. His famous colleague was always interested in music, and he asked Sankey to read it to him. Sankey read the poem, using all the expression he possibly could, but when he was through, he noticed that Moody was absorbed in a letter. He had not heard a word of it! Nevertheless, Sankey clipped the piece and pasted it in his scrapbook, thinking that sometime he would be able to set the words to music.
Now, as he looked at the dense throng of people before him, a voice seemed to say, "Sing the hymn you found on the train." But how could he? He had no music!
Then an inspiration seized him. Placing the poem on the organ, he boldly struck A-flat and began to sing. The music came to him note by note, and he did not hesitate or falter once while he sang with his deep, rich baritone voice:
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold.
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
A quiet hush fell over the people as they listened. But when he had finished the first stanza he wondered if he could repeat the music for the second, third, fourth, and fifth stanza. This was the test. With a prayer in his heart, he started the second stanza, and the music came to him note by note just as it had on the first. By the time he got to the last stanza, he knew the melody well enough to concentrate all his effort on expression, and he finished with a tremendous appeal.
Greatly moved, Mr. Moody left the pulpit and went down to where the singer was seated. "Sankey, where did you get that hymn?" he asked, tears in his eyes. "I never heard the like of it in my life."
Sankey, also deeply conscious of the song's usefulness, replied, "Mr. Moody, that's the hymn I read to you yesterday on the train, which you did not hear."
The music of this hymn has never been changed. It is exactly the same today as it was when Sankey first sang it.
Later on, while the singing evangelist was in Dundee, he received a letter from a lady who had been in the audience at Edinburgh, thanking him for singing her deceased sister's words. From this it was learned that the author of the now famous poem was Elizabeth C. Clephane.
It was in this fashion that the great hymn, which has won hundreds of thousands to Christ and has stirred the hearts of millions more, came into existence. "The Ninety and Nine" will continue to be sung long after the name of Ira D. Sankey is forgotten. But this is just one of the hymns he left to the world. A complete list would include such favorites as "I'm Praying for You," "Hiding in Thee," "Faith Is the Victory," "When the Mists Have Rolled Away," "Simply Trusting," "Under His Wings," and "There'll Be No Dark Valley."
Sankey's influence on modern hymnology is so great it is difficult to estimate. It would be almost impossible to go through a revival meeting or Bible conference today without hearing at least one hymn written or made popular by him. When he was at the height of his career, his name was synonymous with evangelical singing. One day while he was in a London bookstore, he saw a sailor rush in and heard him say, "Give me a dozen little Sankeys, quick!"
So many of his hymnals were sold that he was able to present a Y.M.C.A. building, completely furnished, to his own city of New Castle, Pennsylvania. Marshall, Morgan, and Scott, his English publishers, estimate that they alone have sold seventy million copies of his hymnal. They still reprint it in editions of a quarter of a million at a time. Through these hymnals Sankey still sings.
In regard to his power as a singer, let me quote from an English newspaper:
As a vocalist, Mr. Sankey has not many equals. Possessed of a voice of great volume and richness, he expresses with exquisite skill and pathos the gospel message, in words very simple but "replete with love and tenderness," and always with marked effect on the audience. It is, however, altogether a mistake to suppose that the blessing which attends Mr. Sankey's efforts is attributed only or chiefly to his fine voice and artistic expression. These, no doubt, are very attractive, and go far to move the affections and gratify the taste for music; but the secret of Mr. Sankey's power lies, not in his gift of song, but in the spirit of which the song is only the expression.
People who heard him went back again and again. And that, after all, is the proof of a man's ability. Anyone can draw a crowd the first night. It is only the successful man who has them the next. One time while Sankey was with Moody in Cabeltown, Scotland, a drunken man staggered in and seated himself while Moody was preaching a sermon. He listened for a few minutes, and then he stood up and said, "Mr. Moody, will you please stop a bit. I want to hear Sankey sing "The Ninety and Nine." Sankey sang "The Ninety and Nine" and the man went into the inquiry room.
When William Lyons Phelps was a schoolboy at Hartford, he went to hear Sankey sing. Years later, in a letter to F. B. Sankey, a cousin of Ira's, he wrote of the occasion:
There was something about his baritone voice that was enormously affecting. He had a way of pausing between lines of the song, and in that pause the vast audience remained absolutely silent. He was a man of the finest character.
The meeting had such a profound effect on Mr. Phelps that he mentioned it at length in his autobiography.
P. T. Barnum, the famous showman, went to hear him and responded to the invitation. While Sankey talked to him about his soul, he said, "Mr. Sankey, you just go on singing 'The Ninety and Nine,' and when you get that lost sheep we will all be saved."
During the London campaign, in which over two and a quarter million people heard him sing, Lord Shaftesbury said publicly that if Sankey had taught the people to sing only, "Hold the Fort, for I Am Coming," it would have been worth all the expense of the meeting.
Ira D. Sankey was born in the home of David and Mary Leeper Sankey, August 28, 1840, in the village of Edinburg, Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, at that time a part of Mercer County. He could trace the ancestors on his father's side back to his great-grandfather, William Sankey, a native of Lancashire County, England. Sometime around the latter part of the eighteenth century, this man moved to Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. He served under Captain Robert Samuel as a ranger during the Revolutionary War. His son, Major Ezekiel Sankey, was born in 1772, and after Wayne's victory over the Indians at the battle of Fallen Timbers he settled on a farm near the Shenango River, a short distance north of New Castle, Pennsylvania. Like many of the early settlers, he made his living by farming. He attained the rank of major in the War of 1812. He also became Mercer County's first elected sheriff.
Major Ezekiel Sankey reared nine children. Two of his younger sons—Ezekiel, Jr., and David—were quite prominent in early American history. Ezekiel, Jr., was a major of the Mercer County battalion in the Civil War, was a contractor in the construction of the New York and Erie Railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the Sandy Beaver Railroad, and the Pittsburgh and Erie Railroad. He laid out West New Castle, helped incorporate the first banking house in New Castle and the New Castle Light Company, and was for several years a director in the New Castle Opera House.
Ezekiel's brother David, the father of Ira, also played an important role in the early history of our country, especially of Pennsylvania. He was elected representative to the General Assembly from Mercer County in 1843 and to the State Senate from Mercer and Beaver Counties in 1847. He was also on the State Board of Equalization, president of the Bank of New Castle, and Collector of Internal Revenue for the Twenty-fourth Congressional District. Besides this, he was the editor of the Lawrence Journal. It was he who introduced the bill into the Assembly which, when passed, created Lawrence County.
With this family endowment, great things were expected of Ira when he made his appearance in 1840.
The Sankeys lived in Edinburg until Ira was six years of age. From here they moved to a farm near Western Reserve Harbor, where they lived for the next twelve years. Ira helped his parents with their farming until they moved to New Castle.
His first interest in Christ came to him through a certain Mr. Frazer, who used to take him with his own children to Sunday school in an old school building. Frazer was a farmer and a very plain man, but he had a big, warm heart, and the children loved him. Many young people attributed their experience with Christ to him.
Ira's conversion, although inspired by this man, did not take place until he was sixteen. Invited to a revival meeting at King's Chapel, the church his family attended, he went every night, but he was not interested. Finding a place by the stove, he relieved his boredom by whispering and throwing paper wads with the other boys. But one night an old steward of the church spoke to him about his soul during an invitation. Ira, however, refused to respond. But every night from then on the old man came back and spoke to him. Finally, not being able to endure it any longer, he went up to the public altar and prayed for forgiveness. But not being satisfied the first night, he went back again and again. At last, after a number of long sessions at the altar, he felt the definite assurance of his salvation and asked to be taken into the church.
In 1857 the Sankey family moved to New Castle, where David Sankey took over the presidency of the bank. This move placed Ira alone among strangers, but he kept himself busy by going to high school. Later he joined the New Castle Methodist Church. By the time he was twenty he was the Sunday-school superintendent and the leader of the choir.
As a boy, Sankey had spent many long winter evenings singing with his folks by the old family organ. In these sessions held around the blazing log fires of the time he developed his voice and learned to read music.
Up to this time he knew that a good voice was useful, that singing helped fill the churches, but he did not dream of the extent of the actual possibilities of a good singer. Then Philip Phillips, famous as the "Singing Pilgrim," came to town. Of this experience, Ira wrote:
For the first time I really understood the power which there is in good solo singing, especially when the words are enunciated clearly and the full meaning of the song is brought out.
From Phillips, he got the inspiration to sing solos and had the pleasure of seeing the church fill up and the Sunday school grow until it had an enrollment of three hundred and fifty.
It was while he was doing this work that Sankey first learned about the inconsistency of human nature. The members of this congregation (like the members of many other congregations at this time) were opposed to the use of any musical instrument in the church, although they did not object to a tuning fork used to give the choir the proper pitch. It was some time before the ambitious song leader was able to persuade them to get an organ, and even then he did not have the approval of the whole group. The first time the new instrument was used, two of the older members were so upset that they stamped out of the service. The next day it was reported that one of them was seen riding through the main part of the city, seated on a huge case of rum, singing as loudly as possible, "A Charge to Keep I Have"!
Sankey's reputation as a singer began to spread, and in a few months he was a familiar figure all over western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. His ability to get others to sing helped spread his popularity. Wherever he went the buildings were crowded.
During all this time he learned as much from other singers as possible. Any singing conference in the vicinity usually had him in the audience, if not on the program. Fortunately for him, at this time he met and learned from the highly trained musician, Dr. William B. Bradbury. [Note: Author of such hymns as "Just as I Am," "The Solid Rock," and "Even Me."] Dr. Bradbury, who had started a new kind of Sunday-school music, proved to be a great help to Sankey.
Sankey followed music conventions so much that his father, who hoped Ira would enter politics, cried out in desperation, "I am afraid that boy will never amount to anything; all he does is run about the country with a hymnbook under his arm." His mother quieted him, however, by saying she would rather have a hymnbook under his arm than a whisky bottle in his hip pocket.
Ira had a job at the bank and was just getting started in his business and musical career when President Lincoln sent out a call for men to support the Union. Feeling that it was his duty, Ira enlisted in the spring of 1860. He was among the very first to enter the service from New Castle. Some thought that this would end his musical activities, but instead it gave him more opportunity than ever. He found that many of the young recruits, lonesome for home, were hungry for the gospel and church music. He did all he could to help them.
Here he met and led a group of musical soldiers and used them to help in prayer meetings and to take songs of cheer to the sick and discouraged. He did much of his work around the campfires, but he and his group were also called to many of the near-by cities. When his company was suddenly sent up to Maryland, he learned a lesson that helped him the rest of his life.
Invited into Southern homes, he quickly discovered that the old-time "home songs" soon dispelled whatever prejudice the host might have had against "the boys in blue." He found that all people, regardless of race, color, or political view, respond to songs sung from the heart. This discovery is one of the things that helped him fill the spacious London Haymarket Theater years later.
By the time his term in the army was up, he had attained the rank of sergeant and wanted to re-enlist, but he was dissuaded from doing so by many friends who urged that he go back to civilian life. These friends—and a special friend—prevailed. With the security of a new position in the Internal Revenue Department, he married Miss Fanny V. Edwards, the daughter of the Honorable John Edwards, a member of the State Senate. She had been a member of his choir and was herself a good singer. Knowing music as she did, she became a great help to her husband in his gospel work. They traveled and worked together in revivals and conventions in their own state and surrounding states. They always had more calls than they could fill.
At this time the Sankeys were doing well for themselves and for the community. Ira's work was steady. There were plenty of outlets for his creative ability. His choir had grown. The church had prospered. Two boys had been born to him. The future looked bright. He was satisfied.
Then in 1867 a branch of the Y.M.C.A. was organized in New Castle. Sankey took great interest in it and became the first elected secretary. Later he was made president. This association was making great strides in the world and was a rallying point for evangelical Christians. In 1870 Sankey was enthusiastically chosen as a delegate to the International Convention to be held in Indianapolis. With little thought of what was going to happen, he left for the gathering, remarking to his wife that he hoped to meet a young man by the name of Moody, who was expected to be on the program.
From Sankey Still Sings by Charles Ludwig. Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1947.