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Sankey Still Sings

by Charles Ludwig

Chicago and Boston

Moody and Sankey both knew that a meeting in Chicago would be a test. That a "prophet is not without honor, save in his own country," has been proved over and over again. Friends of theirs, interested in their welfare, warned them not to accept the invitation. After all, why should they go to a hard place when the whole continent was begging for them?

Chicago at that time was feeling the effects of a financial panic. Wages had been cut, and the jobless working classes were angry. Many of the capitalists were even afraid to go out on the street alone. The city certainly needed a revival, but revivals at such times are hard to conduct. These difficulties, however, served only to increase the evangelists' determination to preach the grace of God to the hate-festered metropolis. They had trusted God before. He had never let them down. They trusted him now. And so, many weeks before the meeting was scheduled to start, great preparations got under way. Among other things, Sankey's old friend, George C. Stebbins, organized and trained a choir of one thousand voices.

The new Farwell Hall was the building chosen for the meeting. This brick building, with a seating capacity of more than ten thousand, was located in the heart of the business district. The galleries and seating arrangements were ideal for a city-wide campaign. The acoustics were excellent.

When Sankey arrived in Chicago to start the meeting, he found a much different city from the one he had left two years before. Hundreds of new buildings had gone up, most of them much better than the structures they replaced. A new type of architecture was in evidence throughout the city. The new church at Illinois and La Salle Streets had been completed and dedicated free of debt. The roof and much of the cost had been met with hymnbook royalties. Sankey went through the new building with a deep sense of satisfaction.

During most of the meeting he had the privilege of staying with the Spaffords. The loss of their children such a short time before had brought them closer to God, and they did all they could to make Sankey comfortable. He told them again how their children had been converted in the old tabernacle. His presence with them seemed to encourage Mr. Spafford and to lift the pall of gloom that settled on the home. One day while Mr. Spafford was looking at the framed cablegram on the wall of his office, he felt inspired to write a poem about it. When P. P. Bliss saw the verses, he supplied the music, and the result was the now famous song "It Is Well with My Soul." Bliss introduced the song at Farwell Hall. It has been popular ever since.

This revival meeting was from the very beginning a tremendous success. The vast auditorium was filled night after night, and on many occasions thousands were turned away. There were converts every night, and Sankey had the satisfaction of seeing many who had found Christ at his first meetings in the city. Hundreds had remained true.

Several new songs had been introduced since the American meetings had started, and their immediate popularity demanded that a new hymnal should be compiled. Sankey, along with P. P. Bliss and George C. Stebbins, had been working on this for some time. And shortly before the three months' meeting in Chicago was over, the compilation, known as Gospel Hymns No. 2, was completed.

His part of the task accomplished, P. P. Bliss and his wife left Chicago for a short vacation in Pennsylvania. After his vacation he was scheduled to return to Chicago and help Major Whittle carry on the revival at Farwell Hall. Bliss was advertised to sing the following Sunday in Chicago. He wrote that he was too tired to sing, but when the committee wired that he must come, he agreed to be there.

Sankey looked forward to being with Bliss again and went over to the hotel to wait for his arrival.

I was seated at a small cabinet organ in a hotel in Chicago that sad Saturday morning, awaiting the coming of my friends... The hour of their arrival had passed, and someone remarked, "The train must be late," when a friend rushed into the room and, laying his hand on my shoulder as I was singing one of Bliss's hymns, said, "Sankey, Bliss is dead!" All were shocked, and for a time could not believe the story, but in a few minutes others brought confirmation...

Both Bliss and his wife had been killed in a train wreck at Ashtabula, Ohio. The death of P. P. Bliss and his wife was the hardest blow Sankey had felt up to this time. He had used Bliss's hymns, such as "Wonderful Words of Life" and "Hallelujah! What a Savior," in both America and England so much that they had become ingrained in his own personality. Bliss had been one of his closest friends.

The revival meeting went on, gaining momentum all the time. At first there were only two meetings on Sunday. Soon this had to be changed to three. And even then the building would not take care of the crowds. The evangelists even had to ask the Christians to stay home so that the unchurched masses could be reached. Moody and Sankey were both at their best. By the end of their meeting more than six thousand people professed to have been either converted or reclaimed. When the time came to close the campaign the ministers refused to let the work stop, and so it was turned over to Major Whittle and George C. Stebbins. These men carried the meeting on for several more weeks.

Sankey left Chicago with his family and journeyed to Boston to help Moody in his meeting there. Here the Sankeys stayed in the Hotel Brunswick. This city of Longfellow, Bryant, Holmes, Lyman Beecher, and Phillips Brooks insisted that the meeting should go on for at least six months! This was a surprise to many, who felt that Boston was too much of an intellectual center for a Moody-and-Sankey meeting. The committee had faith in the project, however, and as a result a tabernacle seating six thousand was constructed on Tremont Street about a mile from the Common.

As in all their other meetings, there were critics on hand to try to tear down any good work that might be done. But Boston, the city that bans so many books, had a particularly vicious writer—a certain newspaper man who signed his name I. A. M. Cumming. This man attended the revival each evening and wrote and published a daily column about the meetings, complete with cartoons. His newspaper had a circulation of sixty thousand. Some feared that it would hinder the attendance. The evangelists, however, knew better and seldom referred to it. Sankey was used to this kind of abuse.

Some of these columns were as bitter as a man could write. In one of them the author made fun of the chorus, "Hold the Fort for I Am Coming," by printing a paraphrased version:

Hold the forks, the knives are coming,
  The plates are on the way,
Shout the chorus to your neighbor,
  Sling the hash this way.

This attack was followed by another directed at Sankey. It reads as follows:

I love to hear sweet Sankey sing;
  He is the boss of all
Of them that belch the notes and make
  The flesh of men to crawl;
There's nothing on this earth that's like
  His sanctimonious bawl
Unless a midnight Thomas Cat's
  Delirious caterwaul.

In one issue he drew a cartoon of Sankey, depicting him as he sang "The Ninety and Nine." The caricature showed huge tears streaming down his cheeks. However, in his attempt to hold Sankey up for ridicule, Cumming inadvertently showed the world one source of the singer's power. Sankey was always in dead earnest. He always prayed for souls before he sang.

But in spite of I. A. M. Cumming, the crowds turned out and Sankey was obliged to sing at an average of three services a day for the full six months. That his voice stood up to this terrific punishment is a modern miracle. Boston, one of the great cultural centers of the world, had heard singers with much better training and control than Sankey. They had never, however, heard one with the passion that moved Ira D. Sankey. And even though the press made scathing remarks about the poor wording in most of the hymns, the man on the street was a better man because of them. This does not mean that the upper classes did not receive a benefit. They most assuredly did.

Phillips Brooks, the pastor of the wealthiest and most aristocratic church in Boston, attended many of the meetings and was deeply impressed by them. In a letter to a friend he wrote,

There is a good healthy religious influence, I think, and underneath our little work [his church was the largest in the city] the deep thunder of the Moody movement is rolling all the time.

At one of the services when Moody was too ill to preach, Phillips Brooks was invited to take the pulpit. This he did, following Sankey's solo on "The Ninety and Nine" with a sermon based on Paul's words, "Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision."

The famous Dr. A. J. Gordon also got behind the movement, lending all the influence he could. Visitation committees repeatedly visited every home in Boston. Special services were held for various groups. The meetings shook the city to its very foundations, and reliable people said that it stirred up even more interest than had the meetings of George Whitefield.

During this campaign Mr. Moody spent much of his time in the home of Henry F. Durant, a retired lawyer and the founder of Wellesley College. This man spent a considerable amount of time in evangelistic work and had founded the school with the idea of reaching the academic standards of Harvard while at the same time emphasizing the teachings of the Bible. Moody went through the institution with him and studied the plans. For some time he had had a similar idea in his own mind, and this visit helped it crystallize.

With plans for a school in his thinking, Mr. Moody continued with the Boston revival, preaching as fervently and as often as possible. At the conclusion of this meeting, which proved to be one of the greatest Moody and Sankey had ever conducted, the evangelists went to many other cities, where the same wonderful scenes were repeated.

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

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