For many years now Sankey had been wearing himself out in meetings, and his body demanded a rest. The doctors advised him to have a complete change of atmosphere—to go some place where people would not be clamoring for his songs. And, of course, since Sankey had always wanted to visit the Holy Land, a trip there was the logical solution.
By January, 1898, a party had been made up consisting of his wife, his brother, his son Allen, and a few Christian friends. They sailed from New York City, made a short stop at Gibraltar, and dropped anchor a few days later at Alexandria. From here they traveled to Cairo by rail.
With the thought that no one knew him, and that he would not be called on for anything, Sankey went to the American Mission the first night he was in the city. When he entered the building, he found that it was packed with Americans, Egyptians, and English, who were listening to a lecture on temperance. He himself, being very much in favor of what the speaker was saying, settled down with the idea of enjoying a meeting in which he did not have to participate. The lack of responsibility for the service filled him with a sense of well being. It was like fresh mountain air to a man who has been confined in a coal mine all day.
But suddenly, while he was congratulating himself on having nothing to do, a missionary who happened to be sitting near him leaned over and asked him if he were not Mr. Sankey. He acknowledged that he was. The meeting ended with a concert of sacred songs and solos!
In Egypt, where the party spent forty days, the group visited the usual scenes shown to sightseers: the pyramids, the howling dervishes, the Gizeh Museum, and the Nile River. Then they went to Port Said and on to the Holy Land.
Sankey was thoroughly acquainted with the various notable places in Palestine because of his constant study of the Bible. And as they went from place to place he related the connecting incidents to his friends. At some of the sacred spots he was so moved by the historical associations that he would stop and sing some song that fitted in with the significance of the location.
When the group was taken to Calvary, Sankey broke down completely. The cross had ever been in his thinking. And now as he stood where his Master had died he was overwhelmed with emotion. Turning toward the city from which Christ had walked to his crucifixion, Sankey sang the beautiful hymn, "On Calvary’s Brow My Savior Died." The next day when he wrote to America he sent along a postcard with the picture of Calvary and a brief note saying that he had been there. He was more impressed with this lonely hill, shaped like a skull, than he had been with the great throngs that crowded around him in the British Isles and America.
As the party moved on they were somewhat surprised to find that many of the natives knew Sankey’s songs and that some of the tunes were quite popular with the people. When the village children gathered around him he entertained them by singing "The Ninety and Nine." But when he discovered that they were more interested in getting some baksheesh than they were in listening to his songs, he left, disgusted.
From the Holy Land the party went on to Turkey. At Constantinople Sankey addressed the student body at Robert College and spoke and sang several times in the American and English missions in the city. Then they went on to Rome where, again, Sankey had the privilege of singing and speaking in various churches and missions.
He took advantage of the recreation of this trip to start writing his autobiography and the story of the gospel hymns. Many of the songs he sang had stirring incidents connected with them; and these he carefully wrote down, hoping that their publication would be an inspiration to someone. This task was a hard one, but not as hard as one might suppose, because for years he had told the stories of the hymns before he began to sing. But, like D. L. Moody, he felt it best not to write too much about himself; and so, even though we have a fine record of his hymns, the story of his life as written by himself is very meager. Perhaps this is what has discouraged authors from writing his biography.
Sankey had been watching the trouble between the United States and Spain with great concern. And when he heard that the "Maine" had been sunk, he felt certain that war would break out between the two nations. He feared that shipping would be tied up, that New York and Brooklyn would be attacked, and that it would be hard for him to return home to his work. From his hotel room in Paris he wrote to his brother, telling him if war was declared he would return to America immediately. War was declared, and he took the first available steamer home.
Soon after he landed he visited several army camps, encouraging the boys with hymn concerts. While he was visiting soldiers in camp at Tampa, Florida, Theodore Roosevelt, then Colonel of the Rough Riders, asked him to hold services for his men. This was an opportunity, and he would have liked to take it, but a previous engagement forced him to refuse.
From Sankey Still Sings by Charles Ludwig. Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1947.