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Sankey Still Sings

by Charles Ludwig

Triumphal Return

After a great farewell service in Liverpool, Sankey and his colleague sailed for America on the "Spain."A huge throng of people followed them to the ship, and as the vessel steamed out of the harbor they sang "Hold the Fort" and "Work for the Night Is Coming." Many of these people had been converted in the meetings, and the evangelists found it hard to leave them. Standing on the bow of the ship they waved their handkerchiefs until their hosts of friends were out of sight.

When the evangelists arrived in America they were exhausted from their labors in England and forced themselves to take a few weeks' rest. Moody, of course, went to his home in Northfield. And after Sankey had visited his people in Pennsylvania he joined him there.

The pastor of the Unitarian Church at Northfield took this occasion to preach a series of sermons against Moody and Sankey's methods; but the people had caught the flame of evangelism, and his sermons only served to fan the flame into a blaze.

If either of them hoped for a long rest they were greatly disappointed, for their fame had preceded them to America and people simply would not let them go. Their names had become household words, and pastors demanded that they conduct meetings in their churches. Moody refused to engage in any long campaigns, but he and Sankey both consented to visit the neighboring villages for Sunday services. These visits always produced a great crowd, and many people were converted as the result.

At their first service in Northfield, the old Congregational Church was crowded and there were more people on the outside than there were in the church. Moody always wanted to reach the largest audience possible, and so he had his pulpit and Sankey's organ carried outside and placed in front of the church.

In this position Sankey started the song service. After a number of congregational hymns had been sung, Moody asked Sankey to sing "The Ninety and Nine." This he did, singing it as loudly as possible. The church building acted as a sounding board, and the song was reflected over a wide area. Across the stream from the church, quite a distance away, a certain Mr. Caldwell was sitting enjoying himself. He had been urged to attend the service, but refused. But now, as he sat rocking himself, the stirring song was reflected over to him and he could not help hearing it. Somehow it got into his heart, and two weeks later he became a Christian.

By this time both Moody and Sankey realized that their days in Chicago were finished. From now on they were to be evangelists, and their parish was to be world wide. This being the case, they decided they would have to buy homes somewhere for their families and for headquarters. And where was there a place better than Northfield, with its long streets and beautiful elms? At least that is the way Moody felt, and Moody knew how to influence his song leader! The result was that both Moody and Sankey bought homes there. The houses they bought, although not elaborate, were adequate for their needs.

George C. Stebbins relates the following incident that happened at this time.

At that time the main street of Northfield made a little bend at his house [Moody's], so that the road ran close to his door. One day he was sitting with Sankey on his front porch when Mr. L. came by, driving a span of oxen hitched to a load of black loam. Mr. Moody, knowing he would get some bright answer, called to him: "Mr. L., if you want to do a real benevolent act that will do you good, put that load of loam on my garden back here, for it needs it." Mr. L. replied: "Ye-yes, you and Sa-Sa-Sankey have been havin' some big meetin's round the country." "Yes!" Mr. Moody replied. Mr. L. continued: "If you and Sa-Sa-Sankey would do one thing it would be the bi-bi-biggest day's work you ever did, but you ca-ca-can't do it." "Well, what is it? We would like to know," Mr. Moody queried. "If you would do it one half a da-da-day it would turn this town upside down, but you ca-ca-can't do it." Mr. Moody became interested. "Do tell us, for we want to know." To which Mr. L. replied: "If you and Sa-Sa-Sankey would mu-mu-mind your own business!" And with that remark he drove on, leaving them in gales of laughter.

Mr. Moody planned to hold the first American meeting in Philadelphia, but when the calls from Brooklyn became insistent he consented to start there. The Brooklyn Rink was engaged for the regular meetings, and Talmage's famous Tabernacle was employed for their prayer meetings.

Many people were optimistic about services to be conducted by the world's most noted evangelists, but there were also many skeptics. Editorial after editorial declared that this country was not ready for a revival and that even if it were, Moody and Sankey would not get a crowd. The newspapers went to great lengths to explain that Moody and Sankey were successful in England because they were strangers and that they could not possibly be successful in America. Many of the pastors noted the size of the rink and shook their heads. "It cannot be filled," was their verdict. Brooklyn listened every Sunday to three of the world's greatest preachers, and most of the city thought it was quite unlikely that the people would go to hear an unlearned layman like D. L. Moody. And, moreover, the people in this city of churches were used to hearing the best singing talent in the world. What would an untrained singer like Sankey have to offer? The discouraging critics were certain that their pessimism was justified.

The first meeting in Brooklyn was held on Sunday, October 24, 1875, at the unheard-of hour of eight thirty in the morning! But even though many people have the habit of sleeping late on Sunday morning, the rink was jammed long before the meeting was scheduled to commence, and thousands were unable to gain entrance.

Sankey had a choir of two hundred and fifty voices, and at the announced time he led them in singing "Rejoice and Be Glad," and the revival that was destined to cross the nation was under way. That afternoon between twelve and twenty thousand people were turned away! During the meeting special car tracks were laid up to the door of the building; but even though there was a streetcar every minute, thousands of people had to walk home.

The meeting in Brooklyn continued for more than three weeks, and thousands of converts were made. Sankey's hymns made a special impression. People from all walks of life picked them up and sang them everywhere, even in the saloons.

From here the evangelistic team went to Philadelphia, where on November 24 meetings were started in the old Pennsylvania Railroad depot at Thirteenth and Market. John Wanamaker had bought the structure for use in his business, and at his direction the building, at a cost of more than twenty thousand dollars, was made temporarily into a huge auditorium with a seating capacity of ten thousand. A choir of six hundred had been trained, and seats were provided for them on the platform.

At the first service the building was not quite filled. But this was because of a heavy rain, and not because of lack of interest. This was amply shown two days later, when eight thousand attended a morning prayer meeting!

Before the nine-week campaign was over, almost a million people had attended, including such famous men as President Grant, members of the Senate, and several judges from the Supreme Court. The meeting cost $30,000. But the people were so thankful for its great benefits that they raised $127,000 as a thank offering.

One man was so impressed with the results of the meeting that he declared: "If we had a hundred Moodys and Sankeys in the country all the Protestant sects would unite within ten years."

Sankey's influence on this city can be seen by the results of the auction sale conducted by the committee the morning after the campaign closed.

President Grant's chair was knocked down to Mr. John Wanamaker for $25; Mr. Moody's chair to Stuart for $55; Mr. Sankey's chair to Mr. Field for $55 ... Governor Hartranft's chair to John Wanamaker for $5...
Mr. Moody's platform, Bible rest, crimson plush on the pulpit, with a piece of ingrain carpet and speaking tube, were sold to Mr. Bailey for $125; the towel used by Mr. Moody brought $5, and Mr. Sankey's $5.50.

The glow of this meeting spread to Princeton, New Jersey, and this old town of Presbyterian learning insisted that the evangelists come to them. When Moody hesitated in accepting the invitation because he had to make a trip to Florida, the students organized a prayer meeting; and these services were continued under the direction of Dr. W. M. Taylor and Dr. Cuyler until Moody and Sankey could be present.

Sankey's hymnal had already proved to be popular on the campus; and when he got there and sang such solos as "The Ninety and Nine," the students picked them up and sang them wherever they went. Princeton had had many revivals when the best evangelists were called, but this one was considered by everyone to be one of the best. More than one hundred students yielded themselves to Christ.

After Princeton, Moody and Sankey went to New York City, where the Hippodrome, at a weekly rental of $1,500, was engaged for them. The building had been divided into two large halls, one seating 6,500 and the other one 4,000. There was a huge space between the two auditoriums, and this was closed in for use as an inquiry room. The bigger building was designed to be used as the main auditorium, the smaller one for overflow crowds. Needless to say, from the first night, when more than seven thousand were turned away, both places were always filled. Moody and Sankey would speak and sing in the large one, then pass over into the smaller one, and repeat the service.

This meeting, just like all of the others, proved to be a great triumph. The committee had estimated that its cost would be $25,000, but actually the cost went up to $45,000. All this money was raised during the meeting. There were at least five thousand converts.

Just before the close of this campaign, Sankey made a speech in which he outlined his views concerning gospel singing. He had spent years experimenting before coming to these conclusions, and his address was thus highly valued and widely quoted:

The question before us is, "How shall the service of song be conducted in the Lord's work?" and for the short time that we have here this morning to discuss it I don't propose to go into any elaborate exposition, but simply to get down at once to the practical working of the question. . . .
Before I go further, I would like to make one statement here which will go to prove and establish the fact that the power of sacred song will lay hold of the people of this land and others to a greater extent than in former years. The little hymnbook that was published in England, containing most of the hymns we are enjoying here today, has taken such a hold, I would say for the most part on the common people, that not less than five million copies have been sold all over the world—I mean those with the music and the words. They have been sold away off in India and Africa. Not long ago I got a translation of them in the Kaffir language.
Now comes the question here, How can we utilize them? In the first place, with regard to the church services, I would not have an artistic quartet choir... Now, remember, I don't speak of them individually, but against the services which they attempt to lead, or rather succeed in monopolizing... In order to have a large Christian choir, I would have all the Christians I could gather in from the congregation and elsewhere. Some people, I know, will object to this, but I can't help it. For the last two years we have made a rule that only Christians should lead these services of praise, and we have tried as far as we could to get those who love the Lord and try to sing out of their heart for him, and I know that God has blessed the singing of these gospel hymns from hearts that know the Savior.
I would have the singers, if possible, near the minister... The singing should be under the control of the office-bearers and minister. The deportment of the choir should be such as the congregation will like. If they are before the congregation and with the minister it will be very much the better ... Your ministers should insist upon it that the choir should give as much attention to the sermon and services as the congregation. People who will not give attention to the Word of God as preached should not be leading the services of praise in the church of God. I have found out this, that by having my choir give attention to the addresses here, the contagion spreads, and the audience give attention too... It is the human voice we want, for there is nothing equal to the human voice in the world... I would exclude altogether operatic pieces from the church and have my choir understand the simple, plain pieces. I would leave an operatic piece for the opera. Don't bring it into the house of God...
I must say that we in America have set an example to the earth in Sunday-school singing. To these I would say: get a small instrument, and get a lady or gentleman to play it. Gather the singers around the leader and sing. Talk to them frequently. I would not, however, let it diverge into a singing school. I would sing on the topic of the day. I would not sing about "Greenland's Icy Mountains" and pray about something else.
Now, I would say a word about the evangelistic services. These are being conducted about the country everywhere. Now, if the promoters of union services would send out notices to all the denominations of ministers, and ask them to send in the very best singers in their choirs and congregations, and have them come together, saying, "Now, for this time and these services we will lay aside our little differences of opinion and unite on one thing, singing for Jesus," it would be found to work well. All the practice meetings of choirs, I think, should always be opened and closed with prayer. There will not be one disturbance in that case ... if they are opened with prayer. I commend this to you friends that are to be connected in any way with singing; have the meeting opened and closed with prayer.
I would make a point of going into the work of supplying the people with the hymns, and then I would have the minister speak to the people about the hymn, as Mr. Spurgeon does. He gets up and reads the hymn through, commenting on this verse and that, and telling the congregation how they might sing it. The result is there is not one but sings it at the top of his voice. If a man, on the other hand, gets up and reads a hymn, and gives it over to the choir, that is the end of it, and with a worldly choir they care very little. I wish the day was spent and gone when such would be the practice in our churches, and I hope the day will come when the ministers will encourage the singers in this way, for there is a great power in it. Many a man will remember how you read the hymn. I remember in Philadelphia, years ago, when I was a little boy, I heard an old minister get up and read the hymn, "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood." I have thought of that old man, with his gray hair, and tears streaming down his face, as he read that hymn, ever since, though I have forgotten the sermon and everything else.

From Sankey Still Sings by Charles Ludwig. Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1947.

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