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Sankey Still Sings

by Charles Ludwig

The Fire of Heaven

The man who had left New Castle with so much enthusiasm for his work now returned with a certain amount of bewilderment. The fire had been a severe shock to him. He was, however, comforted by the thought that he had followed the directions of the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit would see that everything would work out to the best advantage. If Sankey had any inclination to feel that he would be out of work for some time, it was a sign he did not know Moody.

The night of the fire Moody had fled to his home to save as much of his property as possible. His wife took his portrait down from the wall, a large painting done by the artist Healy, and asked him to take it with him to a place of safety. This he refused to do, saying it would look ridiculous for him to be seen carrying his own picture at such a time!

After the fire had spent itself, Moody remarked to a friend, "All I saved was my Bible, my family, and my reputation." But in one sense Moody was wrong. He also saved his enthusiasm. The firebrands had barely stopped glowing when he was out on the streets helping the needy. Indeed, he helped the people so much he was widely criticized for being too generous.

Needing funds to rebuild his church, he left Chicago for a time and made a tour of some eastern states, holding revivals and raising funds from his rich friends. It was during this tour that he had an experience that was destined to make the name of Sankey and himself heard around the world. Moody spoke of the incident himself many times, and so I will quote directly from him:

I can myself go back almost twelve years and remember two holy women who used to come to my meetings. It was delightful to see them there, for when I began to preach, I could tell by the expression on their faces they were praying for me. At the close of the Sabbath evening services they would say to me, "We have been praying for you." I said, "Why don't you pray for the people?" They answered, "You need power." "I need power?" I said to myself; "why I thought I had power." I had a large Sabbath school and the largest congregation in Chicago. There were some conversions at the time, and I was satisfied. But right along the two godly women kept praying for me, and their earnest talk about the "anointing for special service" set me thinking. I asked them to come and talk with me, and we got down on our knees. They poured out their hearts that I might have the anointing of the Holy Ghost.

And there came a real hunger into my soul. I knew not what it was. I began to cry as I never did before. The hunger increased. I really felt I did not want to live longer if I could not have this power for service. I kept on crying all the time that God would fill me with his Spirit. Well, one day, in the city of New York—Oh, what a day! I cannot describe it; I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience for me. Paul had an experience of which he never spoke for fourteen years. I can only say God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand.

I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not be placed where I was before that blessed experience if you would give me all Glasgow.

Moody returned to the ruins of Chicago with this experience and three thousand dollars donated by George H. Stuart and John Wanamaker. With this money the North Side Tabernacle was erected—right in the midst of the ruined section. Within two months of the disaster Moody had the tabernacle finished and telegraphed for Sankey to come. Because of the location of the building, there had been some doubt as to whether the auditorium would be filled. But when the day of dedication came, more than one thousand children filed in.

Soon a great revival broke out, and so many people came that they had to have eight services every Sunday; and not only did they have great crowds, but also, as a result of Mr. Moody's recent spiritual experience, many of them were led to make definite decisions for Christ.

In October Sankey moved his family from New Castle to Chicago. With no other place to stay, they started housekeeping with Moody and his family in the tabernacle. It was in this rickety building that Sankey made up his mind that he had been created for gospel work, and it was here that he decided to make evangelism a crusade. This same year Mr. Moody made a second visit to England, leaving his work in the hands of Sankey, Major Whittle (a converted businessman), Richard Thain, and Fleming H. Revell, now famous as the founder of a publishing house bearing his name. With this added responsibility, Sankey felt the need of more spiritual power, and, like Moody, received it. The work at the tabernacle continued, and increased.

As a pastor, Sankey came face to face with people's problems. Some of them were more difficult than he ever imagined. Occasionally when he saw the sins of those who had professed Christ, he got discouraged and wondered if it was really worth while to preach and sing the gospel. Then when his heart was at the lowest, he would see some fruit of his ministry and his courage would increase.

One day, a mother sent for him to come to visit her little girl, a member of the Sunday school. The family property had all been destroyed by the fire, and Sankey found the child lying ill in one of the temporary houses that had been built for the very poor.

"How is it with you today?" he asked.

"It is well with me today," she answered, a broad smile on her face. "I wish you would speak to mother and father."

"But are you a Christian?"


"When did you become one?"

"Do you remember last Thursday in the tabernacle when we had that little singing meeting, and you sang 'Jesus Loves Even Me'? It was last Thursday I believed on the Lord Jesus, and now I'm going to be with him today."

That little testimony from the neglected side of Chicago sent Sankey's spirits soaring. Later, when his fame was world-wide, he stated that it had done more for him than the words of anyone alive.

He became more skillful as a fisher of men as time went on, and he had the pleasure of seeing conversions, especially of children, at almost every service. Notable among these was the conversion of the Spafford children. Sankey remembered them particularly, because of their parents. The Spaffords, being musically minded and zealous for God's work, were special friends of his.

Deeply moved by these experiences, Sankey's evangelistic work became an obsession; and when Moody returned from England, he found the work had gone forward much more than he had expected.

Soon after Moody's return to Chicago, he accepted an invitation to conduct a series of meetings in Springfield, Illinois. With Sankey's help, the services were carried on with great results. Indeed, they had such fine success that many people felt that if they had continued a great revival would have spread across the continent.

But Moody felt a call to go back to England for a series of meetings. He had no definite itinerary laid out. He simply felt that God was leading him there. And, moreover, he believed that God wanted him to take a singer on the trip, and that the singer was to be Ira D. Sankey. [Note: Before asking Sankey to go with him, Mr. Moody had approached both Philip Phillips, a warm, personal friend of his, and P. P. Bliss. When both of these men declined to go, he felt it was God's will for him to ask Sankey.]

He approached Sankey on the matter, but Sankey did not know what to say. For almost at the same time Philip Phillips, the Singing Pilgrim, flattered him by offering a large salary with all expenses paid if he would accompany him on a tour of the West Coast. Sankey had great respect for Phillips because of the quality of his voice and because it was he who had inspired him to sing gospel music. Philip Phillips at this time was the most famous gospel singer in the country. After he himself was famous, Sankey related how his friend reached the high place he did in the musical world:

Away back in the first days of the Civil War, a young man, with a remarkable voice distinguished for its sympathetic quality and marked tremolo, was invited to sing in the Senate Chamber of Washington, at a great meeting of the United States Christian Commission, which had met under the presidency of the Hon. William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln. The hall was crowded with leading statesmen and prominent generals of the army and friends of the Union. The song selected by the singer on this occasion was one written by Mrs. Ellen Huntington Gates, a sister of Mr. C. P. Huntington, afterwards president of the Southern Pacific Railway Company, entitled "Your Mission."

The audience was spellbound as the singer went from verse to verse, until he reached the fifth stanza, which roused the meeting into great enthusiasm. The climax of the song was reached in this verse, which seemed so well fitted for the occasion:

If you cannot in the conflict
  Prove yourself a soldier true;
If where fire and smoke are thickest,
  There's no work for you to do;

When the battlefield is silent
  You can go with careful tread,
You can bear away the wounded,
  You can cover up the dead.

The great heart of Abraham Lincoln, who sat near the singer, was profoundly moved, and he hurriedly wrote the following note, which was handed to the chairman, Mr. Seward: "Near the close, let us have 'Your Mission' repeated by Mr. Phillips. Don't say I called for it."

This story was carried by the public press, and Philip Phillips found himself in great demand overnight. Considering all this, we can imagine the feeling Sankey must have had when he was invited to work with him.

Sankey seriously considered going with him. Such a trip would increase his "drawing power" and help him win men to Christ. Moreover, his wife was expecting another child, and he needed the extra money his position with Phillips would provide. But before he made up his mind as to what to do, he decided to talk it over with Moody. He had come to a fork in the road, and he wanted, above all else, to follow the directions of the Holy Spirit.

Moody explained that it was true that he did not have a definite itinerary in England, but that he had been called by such reliable men as William Pennefather, Henry Bewley, and Cuthbert Bainbridge. These men had made a tremendous impression on him, and he told Sankey about them in glowing terms. He was especially fond of Pennefather, the founder of the Mildmay Conference, of whom he said:

I well remember sitting in yonder seat looking up at this platform and seeing the beloved Mr. Pennefather's face illuminated as it were with heaven's light. I don't recall a word that he said, but the whole atmosphere of the man breathed holiness. ... I thank God that I saw and spoke with that holy man; no one could see him without the consciousness that he lived in the presence of God.

He also told how Bewley had inspired him by asking if he was O and O for Christ (out and out), and how in a single poorly promoted ten-day meeting he had seen four hundred conversions. After this talk in which Moody told how English audiences love gospel singing, the two men went to their knees in prayer.

If Sankey accepted Philip Phillips' offer, he would have an excellent itinerary already made out, a good salary, and full assurance of large crowds. On the other hand, if he went with Moody, all he had to rely on were the very general promises of three men he had never met. What was he to do?

Moody and Sankey continued in prayer. When they got up from their knees, Sankey announced that he was going to England. The Holy Spirit had directed!

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

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