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Sankey Still Sings

by Charles Ludwig

Spies, Music and Edinburgh

Toward the close of the campaign at Newcastle-on-Tyne, a distinguished Scotch preacher, disguised as a lay member, went to the meetings to see if the evangelists were really sincere. The brethren in Edinburgh had seen an article in the Newcastle Chronicle about the work and wanted to see if it was all true. They needed a revival and had been praying for it, but they were afraid of being taken in by someone who was not of God. When the disguised preacher, John Kelman, returned to Scotland he exchanged his soft hat for his customary "silk topper" and reported to the local ministers that Moody and Sankey were "all right."

Soon an invitation was handed the Americans, and after much prayer they set out toward Scotland. Both of them were a little bit nervous. Sankey knew that Horatius Bonar would be there, and this caused him some anxiety. There was no musician he respected more than Bonar. How would he ever be able to sing in his presence? More than this, Sankey knew that the Scotch people were deeply prejudiced against "human hymns" and that they had not had organs in their churches for three hundred years. Moody, too, was a little fearful, because he knew that the Scotch preachers were great lovers of theology, and his own was a little on the sketchy side. Nevertheless, they knew that God had called them and that it was their duty to go.

Their train arrived in Edinburgh on a dismal November night in 1873. Hoping to avoid a tiring reception, the evangelists did not notify the local ministry when they would arrive. From the station Sankey took a public cab to a hotel in downtown Edinburgh, near the monument of Sir Walter Scott. He went to his room, arranged his luggage, and then went out for a stroll. He had not gone very far until a hand was laid on his shoulder, and a voice in a broad Scotch accent said, "Ah, Mr. Sankey, is this you? When did you arrive? And where is Mr. Moody?"

Sankey gave him the information he wanted, then asked him who he was.

"The chairman of your committee," he responded. "And I've been waiting for days to hear when you would arrive. Come away. You're not to be stopping at a public hotel when there are a hundred homes ready to receive you."

In spite of his protests, Sankey was taken from his hotel and given a place to stay in one of the loveliest homes in Edinburgh.

Almost from the very beginning Sankey began to hear how the people despised his "kist o' whistles" and how they considered that there was a devil in each pipe of the pipe organ. He was also told in very certain terms that "human hymns" were of the devil and that God would not bless him if he sang them. Moody tried to relieve the tension by explaining that Sankey's organ was a very small one, and that the psalms were written under the old dispensation and perhaps were not meant for people to sing under the new dispensation. This argument amused some, but it did not help much. Mr. Sankey wrote in his autobiography:

Our first meeting in Edinburgh [in the Music Hall] was advertised to be held on Sunday evening, November 23, and long before the hour for commencing the service arrived the whole building was densely packed to its utmost capacity; even the lobbies, stairs, and entrance were crowded with people, while more than two thousand were turned away.
The first announcement made was a sad disappointment to the congregation, for it was that Mr. Moody could not be present, he having contracted a severe cold the day before, while on the train en route from Carlisle. It was further announced that Mr. Sankey would conduct the service of song, and the Rev. J. H. Wilson would preach.

We can imagine the feeling that must have gripped the singer as he faced this audience. This was the greatest test of his life. But with a prayer in his heart he asked them to sing the One Hundredth Psalm.

To this they responded with a will, as it was safe and common ground for all denominations, and no questions were raised as to Mr. Rouse having introduced anything "human" into David's version as found in the Bible.

After the Scripture reading and prayer were over, it was time for Sankey's solo. This was the test. He felt his stomach tighten into a knot as he looked at the music. He had to force his hands to touch the keys of the organ. The success of the whole meeting might depend on the people's reaction. Then, with a quick glance at the audience he started singing the first "human" solo many of the people had ever heard in a religious service. The song chosen was "Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By." The thought, "What will the people think?" held him in a paralyzing grip. It was hard to keep a quiver out of his voice.

But as the melody spread from his lips out over the throng, the crowded audience remained absolutely silent. And when he had finished he knew he had won a victory. He was so sure of this that at the end of the service he closed by singing P. P. Bliss's chorus, "Hold the Fort." Then, with an inspiration, he asked the people to join with him. And, strange enough, they did, making the very roof echo with the chorus. No outward objections were made.

The next day the service was conducted in Barclay Free Church. And through someone's oversight, Sankey's organ was not moved to the new location. When the committee discovered this, they sent a delegation to get it. But these people, in their hurry to comply, spilled the organ in the street, ruining it for the evening's meeting. The result was that the singer did not sing that night. This accident pleased some of the people immensely:

The third meeting was held in the same church, and great interest was manifested by the citizens. The question of solo singing, as to its propriety and usefulness, was not yet fully understood or admitted; hence it was with much fear and trepidation that we thus really entered, this third night, upon our three months' campaign.
As I took my seat at the instrument on that, to me, most memorable evening, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Dr. Horatius Bonar was seated close by my organ, right in front of the pulpit. The first gospel-song music I had ever composed, written since coming to Edinburgh, was set to words which he wrote—"Yet There Is Room."
Of all men in Scotland he was the one man concerning whose decision I was most solicitous. He was, indeed, my ideal hymn writer, the prince among hymnists of his day and generation. And yet he would not sing one of his own beautiful hymns in his own congregation, such as "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say," or "I Was a Wandering Sheep," because he ministered to a church that believed in the use of the Psalms only.
With fear and trembling I announced as a solo the song, "Free from the Law, Oh, Happy Condition."
No prayer having been offered for this part of the service, and feeling that the singing might prove only an entertainment, and not a spiritual blessing, I requested the whole congregation to join me in a word of prayer, asking God to bless the truth about to be sung.
In the prayer my anxiety was relieved. Believing and rejoicing in the glorious truth contained in the song, I sang it through to the end.
At the close of Mr. Moody's address, Dr. Bonar turned toward me with a smile on his venerable face, and reaching out his hand he said, "Well, Mr. Sankey, you sang the gospel tonight."
And thus the way was opened for the mission of sacred song in Scotland.

By December Sankey's songs had taken such an effect that Dr. Thompson was inspired to write:

The service of song conducted by Mr. Sankey, in which music is used as the handmaid of a gospel ministry, has already been described in our columns. I have never found it objected to except by those who have not witnessed it. Those who have come and heard it have departed with their prejudices vanished, and their hearts impressed.

People had begun to whisper that Moody and Sankey were advanced agents for P. T. Barnum, that Sankey was in the British Isles in order to sell American organs, and that neither one of them had good reputations in Chicago. This last rumor, which was widely published in pamphlet form, caused them the most trouble. But when the news of it reached Chicago, the ministers there immediately sent a denial to Scotland signed by the most influential ministers of the city.

And to add to their troubles, one evening while Mr. Sankey was leaving the church he heard newsboys advertising their papers shouting that the "Ville de Havre" had sunk on its way back from America to France. Knowing that his friend, Mrs. Spafford, and her four children were aboard, he hurriedly bought a copy. And there he read the terrible news that almost everyone on board had been lost.

Ten days later, Mrs. Spafford, who, through some miracle had stayed afloat, was landed at Cardiff. Immediately she cabled to her husband in Chicago, "Saved alone." Her husband framed the cablegram for his office and caught the next boat for Liverpool.

When Moody and Sankey heard that the children were lost, they were heartbroken. The children had all found Christ through Mr. Sankey's efforts in Chicago. It was a personal loss. Mr. Moody himself felt so bad that he left the meetings in the hands of Sankey while he went to Liverpool to comfort the bereaved parents.

All this caused the evangelists to have heavy hearts, but they were relieved by seeing great results in their meetings. The noon prayer services were attended by more than a thousand every day, and no building in the city would hold all those who wanted to hear the evening service. More than this, people were converted at every meeting.

The people of Edinburgh were glad to see the wonderful results, but some of them never did learn to enjoy "human" hymns. At one meeting Sankey had just started a solo when "a woman's shrill voice was heard in the gallery, as she made her way toward the door, crying, 'Let me oot! Let me oot! What would John Knox think of the like of yon?'" When he had finished his song, he went across the street to sing at an overflow meeting in the Tolbooth Church. He had just started to sing again when the same voice was heard, "Let me oot! Let me oot! What would John Knox think of the like of yon?"

This woman's abhorrence was not hers alone. What she said was felt by at least most of the older people. While the Edinburgh meetings were still going on, an old lady who was dying was visited by Malcolm Ferguson, a lay evangelist. After spending some time with her he asked if he could sing a hymn. To this she replied, "Na, na, nane o' yer human hymns for me. What's wrang wi' the Psalms o' Dauvit? I expect, Malcolm, when ye get to heaven, ye'll gang clankin' straight for Sankey; but Dauvit's my man."

Another thing that troubled Sankey was his inability to pronounce Scotch words correctly. His colleague one time heard him sing a solo entitled "My Ain Countrie," and called upon him to sing it to the Scotch audience. Years afterward, he said:

I realized it was a rather hazardous proceeding to sing a hymn in the vernacular, but Mr. Moody, though he knew he had put me in a tight place, said, "Go ahead, Sankey." I did go ahead, and that is one of the reasons why Mr. Moody and I got on so well during our thirty years' work together. When Moody said, "Go on," Sankey went on. Well, in fear and trembling I essayed to sing "My Ain Countrie," and at the close I looked at my audience to see how they had stood it. It was not an easy thing to tell much from the aspect of a Scotch audience, but I thought I had done fairly well. When the meeting was over, a Scotchman came up and said to me, "Mr Sankey, you sang that hymn very well, all but one word." He taught me how that word should be pronounced, and I took the trouble to write it in the margin of my book so as not to forget. When we moved to another city, the hymn was given at one of the meetings and I concentrated my whole attention on that one word. But again at the conclusion of the service a Scotchman came to me and criticized my pronunciation of the word. I explained I had done my best to get the right pronunciation and pointed to the margin of my book. "Where did you write that?" asked the Scot. "In the next county," I replied. "Oh, they don't speak real Scotch there," was his withering reply. So I was not eager to sing Scotch songs in Scotland.

The meetings in Edinburgh gained in strength every day, and thousands of people were brought into the fold. The criticisms increased, but success also increased; and the more bitter the newspapers became, the more the people flocked to the services. The evangelists who had landed in Liverpool without a single engagement were now carrying Scotland by storm!

Sankey's feared Dr. Horatius Bonar summed up their work as follows:

These American brethren bring to us no new gospel, nor do they pretend to novelty of any kind in their plans, save perhaps that of giving greater prominence to the singing of hymns, conveying the good news to their hearers through this instrumentality. We may trust them. They fully deserve our confidence; the more we know of them in private, the more do we appreciate them and the more do we feel inclined to cast our lot with them. We ask for soundness in faith, and we do well. These men are consistent and humble. We ask for self-denial, and we do well. These men are self-denying, hard-working men, who are spending and being spent in a service which they believe to be not human, but divine. We ask for definite aims, an ultimatum in which self shall have no place, and we do well. These men have the most definite of all aims winning souls to everlasting joy, and they look for no fame and no reward save the Master's approval; the recompense in reserve for those who turn many to righteousness. They have in view no sinister nor sordid motives, as their past history shows, as everyone who associates with them must feel. Besides all this, it is vain to try to stop them. They will work and they will speak, whoever shall say nay. Let us work along with them. Rowland Hill was once asked the question, "When do you intend to stop?" "Not until we have carried all before us," was his answer. So say our brethren from Chicago. We say, Amen. The needy world says Amen. Human wickedness and evil say Amen. Heaven and earth say Amen. The work is great and the time is short, but strength is not of man, but of God.

Sankey read that, thought of the converts, and was glad he had obeyed the Holy Spirit in giving up government job in New Castle.

As a fitting climax to this, the greatest triumph of his life up to this time, his wife gave birth to a son. And in honor of the great work done in Edinburgh Sankey gave him a Scottish name. Curiously enough the son was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and Sankey himself was born in Edinburg, Pennsylvania.

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

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