It is practically impossible for us to imagine how a singer could sit behind a small reed organ, thus almost hiding himself from the view of the audience, and sing effectively to twenty thousand people. Such a thing seems manifestly impossible, especially without the use of amplifiers. But this is exactly what Ira D. Sankey did. What was the secret of his success? How could a seated man have absolute control over so many people?
Strange enough, we must say that his power over an audience was not altogether because of the quality of his voice! Sankey’s voice was a high baritone "of exceptional volume, purity, and sympathy." But even so, there were some who disliked it intensely. "When I see humanity," wrote a frankly biased and satirical critic, "Boston humanity—most musical of all humanity—sit and be tortured with this astounding discord, I do not doubt humanity’s devotion to the gospel.” The author of that, an agnostic and hater of revivals, no doubt exaggerated; but at least he does give us a hint that the man’s voice was not a perfect instrument. As far as quality is concerned, everyone is agreed that Sankey had many contemporaries who had much better voices than he, yet it is evident that none of them, regardless of their skill, were nearly so effective as he was.
The first secret of his success was that he sang with the sole purpose of seeing people won to Christ. He believed that the world was lost and that it was his duty to help save as many individuals as possible. He had a passion for souls. "I hope you are catching fish," he wrote to his brother. "We are catching men." Because he believed the world was lost he never stood up to sing unless he had spent some time in prayer. Then when he sang "Throw Out the Life Line," he meant literally what the words expressed. This prayer life and passion for the lost worked their way into his voice, giving it a quality that his contemporaries did not have. It was this passionate quality that gripped the people.
Again, it is evident that his special interpretation of evangelistic songs contributed largely to his success. Unlike many singers, he felt that the words of the solo should be as effective as the music itself. Because of this, he enunciated clearly and so distinctly that everyone knew what he was singing about. His solos could really be called musical oratory.
His interpretation of songs was his own conception; and in his rendering of them he always kept before him the importance of making the subject of the hymn stand out in great distinctness, even though it did violence sometimes to the accepted rules of musical phrasing. Seated at a low-top organ with which he always accompanied himself, he, without ostentation, sang messages into the hearts and consciences of people in a way that justly made him famous as an interpreter of evangelistic song.
Sankey had a mobile face that easily expressed the emotions in his heart. He frequently wept before he had finished his solo. His personality, and the reflection of his earnestness on his face, often drew more people into the inquiry room than the solos he sang. He had a magnetic way about him. He unconsciously attracted people.
But more than all of this we must say that the greatest part of his success came because he was wholly dependent on God. From the very beginning of his gospel career he had depended on the Holy Spirit for guidance and help. It is well known that Moody received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and was a different man thereafter. It should also be kept in mind that Sankey had a similar experience. He himself often spoke of his infilling, and he attributed all his success to the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is true that Sankey had a great voice, unusual talent, and a willingness to work. But it was the power of a Spirit-filled life that used his untrained voice to lead the tens of thousands into a definite experience with Christ. Without the Holy Spirit he would have been nothing—just a clanging gong.
From Sankey Still Sings by Charles Ludwig. Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1947.