Sankey left his family in New Castle and joined forces with Moody in Chicago early in the year of 1871. The two men worked together splendidly. The number of conversions increased. Sankey became an expert at "pulling in the net." Some people came to hear Moody preach; others walked long distances to hear Sankey's songs. Crowded houses waited on them at every service. Moody saw to that. Each evening, prior to the service, a number of young people gathered for tea. Then, after some inspiring words from Moody, they went out into the streets and saloons and gathered a crowd. It was easy to invite them to hear Sankey.
Singing to these people developed Sankey's passion for souls. It was here he learned to sing in such a way that Mrs. Barbour commented:
Mr. Sankey sings with the conviction that souls are receiving Jesus between one note and the next. The stillness is overawing; some of the lines are more spoken than sung. The hymns are equally used for awakening, none more than "Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By." When you hear "The Ninety and Nine" sung, you know of a truth that down in this corner, up in the gallery, behind that pillar which hides the singer's face from the listener, the hand of Jesus has been finding this and that and yonder one, to place them in the fold. A certain class of hearers come to the services solely to hear Mr. Sankey, and the song throws the Lord's net around them.
Sankey's smooth, cultured ways complemented and made up for Moody's poor English and impulsiveness. People began to call them David and Jonathan. Sankey found that the happiest work in the world was that of bringing men and women to Jesus Christ. From morning until night, day after day, he kept himself busy singing to the sick, the discouraged, and those who needed above all to learn that someone cared for them. Chicago was filled with people who needed God. Sankey did all that he could to take the gospel message to all of them. There were other interests in Chicago, too. He had the privilege of becoming acquainted with a number of other men who were making names for themselves singing the gospel. Notable among these was Mr. George C. Stebbins, who was then director of music at the First Baptist Church on the South Side. Sankey also had the fortune to meet and know P. P. Bliss, the famed author of "Hold the Fort." He worked with these men as much as he could, and was often seen with them on the platform at evangelistic meetings. With the encouragement of their success and his own, Sankey threw himself into the work with utter abandon.
Then one Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, a day no one who lived in or near Chicago at that time has ever been able to forget, Moody and Sankey conducted a meeting in Farwell Hall. The building was crowded to the doors with the largest audience Mr. Moody had ever faced in Chicago. He started the service in the usual way. Everyone joined in the worship. The sermon was the fifth in a series on the life of Christ, and it proved to be a powerful one. Not a soul in the building had any idea about what was before them.
A little after nine o'clock, a fire was seen in the direction of the O'Leary place. Daniel Sullivan claimed to have seen it in their barn at 9:25. By 9:30 the fire had spread to Taylor Street. Alarms were sounded, hoses brought out, but the blaze roared on, gaining intensity all the time. A strong wind swept the flames from house to house. Firebrands were sucked up into the air by the heat and showered like incendiary bombs on the roofs below. The whole section of the city became a seething holocaust.
Mr. Moody heard the fire bell, but he continued on with his sermon, "What Shall I Do with Jesus?" He had heard the bell many times before and was not disturbed by it. Bringing his message to a conclusion, he said, "Now I want you to take that question home with you and think it over, and next Sunday I want you to come back and tell me what you are going to do with it." [Note: Afterwards, Moody said that this statement was one of the greatest mistakes in his life and that he would gladly give his right arm if he could recall it.]
Sankey stood before the great crowd, numbering more than three thousand persons, and began to sing, "Today the Savior Calls." He had just reached the third stanza,
Today the Savior calls:
For refuge fly;
The storm of justice falls,
And death is nigh,
when his voice was drowned out by the clanging of fire engines driving past the hall, the shouting and agonized screaming of people fleeing the flames, the tolling of church bells, and the dull, incessant booming of the huge bell suspended in the courthouse near by. Moody now realized the peril and dismissed the congregation immediately.
Moody and Sankey left the building together by a back door leading into the old Arcade Court. There they could see the reflection of the hungry flames as they ravished homes half a mile away. It seemed the whole city, which some people had compared to Sodom and Gomorrah, would be completely destroyed. The gospel workers looked at the destruction for a brief moment and parted, Moody going to his home on the North Side [Note: This home had been given to Mr. Moody rent free by a member of his congregation.] and Sankey to the place where the fire was blazing.
After several hours of trying to help prevent the spread of the flames Sankey decided that the conflagration could not be stopped. The next best thing to do was to save as many of his things as possible. He returned to Farwell Hall Building, where he had his room and office space. The wind was now blowing the flames with the power of a hurricane, and as he rushed along, the fire followed close behin—so close that he had to brush falling embers from his clothes.
Hastening into the building, he quickly chose the possessions he wished to save, placed them at the door, and hurried out in search of a public vehicle to take them to a place of safety.
The hackmen took advantage of the terror by charging huge prices. The smallest service cost a minimum of ten dollars. Sometimes they would carry things halfway and demand more money; if the money was not produced, they dumped the effects on the street and went back for other victims. One man charged a thousand dollars to take a box to the West Side depot. The box, however, contained over half a million dollars, and the owner was glad to get it delivered at any price.
It was in this bedlam of frantic horses, fleeing women, and looting robbers that Sankey tried to hail a cab. Suddenly, a horse hitched to an express wagon tore down the street at full speed. Sankey tried to stop it, but it got away and was captured by one of a dozen men who had been on its trail. With no other alternative, he took out all the luggage he could manage and started to carry it to Lake Michigan, half a mile distant. In his brief autobiography, Sankey has a good description of what followed:
On the way to the lake I passed the present location of the Palmer House, then being erected, the foundation of which had only been built to the level of the street. Believing that the rooms and underground passages would afford a temporary place of security for some of my things, I walked on a plank down into the cellar, and hid two large valises in the darkest corner I could find. As yet, only a few people were moving out of their homes in this section of the city, and, as I noticed the seeming indifference of those who had come to the windows of their houses, I called out to them to escape for their lives, as the city was doomed to destruction. Some became alarmed; others only laughed.
I returned to the hall for another load of my belongings, and after securing all I could carry, started in a more direct route for the lake, the streets being lighted up by the glare of the oncoming conflagration. After getting about halfway to the shore, I stopped and deposited my burdens on the front steps of a fine residence I was passing, thinking I would return and find them there. Again, for the third time, I went back to my rooms, and, gathering up a few more articles, started for the stone steps. I found, however, on reaching the house, that the things I had left there were covered several feet deep with other people's belongings, and I never saw them again.
Going on with what he had, he was passed by two men bearing an invalid on a stretcher. A short way ahead they stopped and put the man down, for he was quite sure the fire would never reach him. The cripple paid and discharged the men. This gave Sankey a chance: he immediately hired them to help carry his loads to the lake. The men shouldered their loads and started to carry them, but after going just a short distance they looked up and saw that the fire was progressing toward their own homes. Immediately, without a word, they dropped everything in the middle of the street and, without even waiting to be paid, rushed toward their own homes to save what they could.
Fortunately, Sankey managed to procure the services of someone else and got his things down to the water front. Here he felt a certain amount of safety, because even if the fire did come to the edge of the water he could wade out a short distance from shore and be saved from the terrific heat. Then he remembered his suitcases, which he had hidden in the Palmer House. He asked another refugee to keep his eye on his goods while he went back for the suitcases. Somewhat to his amazement, he found that they were still there, and he was able to take them back with him to the shore.
Exhausted by the tremendous excitement and by the work he had done, Sankey got another man to watch his things while he went in search of some water to drink, the water at the shore being extremely unsanitary. The first home at which he knocked proved to be a friendly one; the people sent him into the kitchen to help himself to as much water as he wanted. He turned on the tap, expecting water, but to his dismay nothing came out. The water works had been destroyed. A few minutes later there was a loud explosion, and the gas works went up in flames. The city was now an ocean of fire.
Desperate for water, Sankey went back to the shore, got permission from the owner of a small boat, loaded his belongings onto it, and rowed out to some piling that was being constructed for a future railway. From this vantage point he could see the avalanche of flame as it progressed.
The fear of the blaze made many people think about religious matters, but it also released the pent-up passions of the rougher class. Bands of thieves roamed the streets, burning, looting, committing every kind of sin possible. A boy was seen setting fire to a building. He was instantly shot. A woman was almost hanged for trying to do the same thing to a downtown building. A man of suspicious character was found near a newly fired building. The people ran after him and stoned him to death. Mayor Mason was compelled to swear in five hundred additional policemen and to engage the services of the Chicago militia the next day.
Sankey stayed out on the piling until he thought it was safe enough to make an attempt to get to the depot. He jumped from where he had been sitting into a boat, not knowing that the rope binding the craft to the piling had been almost worn in two by the up and down action of the waves. When his body struck the boat the weight of the impact broke the rope and carried him out into the lake. Water poured into the boat. For a moment he thought he would certainly be drowned. But a few minutes later he got the craft under control and managed to row back to shore.
By this time a few public vehicles were available, and he was fortunate enough to get one. The hackman, for a fee of ten dollars, agreed to try to take his goods to the Fort Wayne and Chicago Railway depot. Through some miracle, he found his way there. After checking his luggage and eating a meal at a near-by restaurant, Sankey went back to the burned-out district to see the extent of the damage. Devastation was everywhere, Buildings in all directions were leveled. The recently built Farwell Hall, costing $199,000, was gone. The Illinois Street Church, which Moody had built in 1863 to take care of those who were converted under his efforts, was destroyed. Broken glass, twisted telegraph wire, hot bricks, crumbling walls were everywhere.
Later, Sankey learned that the burned area covered a district of nineteen hundred acres, including almost all of Mr. Moody's parish; that more than thirteen hundred buildings were ruined, and that the total cost of the fire amounted to more than two hundred million dollars.
It was with mingled feelings that he boarded the train for home. He had given up an excellent job to come here, and now the fire had ruined everything. Had he made a mistake? Had the Holy Spirit really sent him? or had he been a victim of Mr. Moody's enthusiasm? As the train sped on toward his home he looked out the window. Chicago was just a big, red blotch of fire.
From Sankey Still Sings by Charles Ludwig. Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1947.