The Incredible Ira Sankey


 A few  years ago, some folks in Florida gave me an 1894 edition of Ira Sankey’s hymnal, and this particular book is personally autographed by Sankey to his wife. I treasure the book because I’m a huge fan of Sankey, an extraordinary 1800s musical evangelist who forever changed Christian hymnody. If we don’t know the heritage and history of our hymns, we’ll end up with rootless worship and disposable songs–which is what is frequently happening now. If we retain our heritage while wisely adding to it, we’ll preserve our legacy while enhancing our future. That’s why we should know Ira Sankey.

The great German and British hymns of the 1700s were majestic, God-centered, stately, reverent, and worshipful. I love them and, if I had to choose between the great old hymns and the 19th century Gospel songs, I would choose the hymns for sure. But they weren’t quite suited to children in Sunday School; and in the 1800s, the Sunday School movement spread like a prairie fire across America, fueled by the Second Great Awakening. These children needed songs to sing, which gave rise to the era of the “Sunday School Song,” simple, easy-to-sing hymns and choruses, like “Jesus Loves Me.” William Bradbury, a composer and music educator, deserves the lion’s share of credit for this innovation in hymnody.

In Chicago in the 1860s, Dwight Lyman Moody, a vigorous Sunday School worker, began preaching in larger settings. In June 1870, Moody spoke in Indianapolis. During one service, an employee of the Internal Revenue Service, Ira Sankey, led the singing. Afterward the men met, and Moody pelted him with questions: “Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?”

Upon telling him that I lived in Pennsylvania, was married, had two children, and was in the government employ, he said abruptly, “You will have to give that up.”

I was amazed, at a loss to understand why the man told me that I would have to give up what I considered a good position. “What for?” I exclaimed.

“To come to Chicago and help me in my work,” was the answer.

When I told him that I could not leave my business, he retorted, “You must; I have been looking for you for the last eight years.”

Moody persuaded Sankey to join him as a musical evangelist in his campaigns, and the Moody-Sankey Team embarked on a series of evangelistic endeavors in Great Britain and America. Sankey traveled with a small portable organ and he searched out songs that felt warm, simple, evangelistic, and emotional. It was the natural evolution of the Sunday School Song. Sankey insisted on keeping the older hymns, but added his “new sweet church songs.”

Many people made life-changing decisions to follow Christ while listening to a Sankey solo. Rev. E. J. Goodspeed wrote a contemporaneous account of the Moody-Sankey meetings, saying:

As a vocalist, Mr. Sankey has not many equals. Possessed of a voice of great volume and richness, he expressed with exquisite skill and pathos the Gospel message, in words very simple, but replete with love and tenderness, and always with marked effect upon his audience. It is, however, altogether a mistake to suppose that the blessings which attends Mr. Sankey’s efforts is attributable only or chiefly to his fine voice and artistic expression…. Like his colleague, he likewise has a message to lost men from God the Father; and the Spirit of God in him finds a willing and effective instrument in his gift of song…. “It was a few evenings ago,” said a youth in the Young Men’s Meeting in Roby Chapel, “when Mr. Sankey was singing in the Free Trade Hall ‘Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By,’ that I was made to feel the need of my Savior; and when he came to those words, ‘Too late, too late,’ I said to myself it must not be too late for me, and I took him to my heart there and then.”

The stories of those converted to Christ mid-song are striking. One “intelligent young man” testified that he came to the Moody-Sankey Liverpool meeting in 1875 to make fun of the proceedings. He sat laughing to himself until “that beautiful hymn, ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus,’ was sung. A sudden thrill passed through my whole frame, and then like a dart ran through my very heart. My feelings were awful, but I listened to the next verse, and felt there is a Savior. Who is He? Where is He? Instantly I realized the truth, Jesus is the Savior. I threw myself into His loving arms, and here I am now, rejoicing in Him.”

While Moody and Sankey were in London, publisher R. C. Morgan offered to publish a collection of the songs used in the meetings. “So,” Sankey recalled, “I cut from my scrap-book twenty-three pieces, rolled them up, and wrote on them the words ‘Sacred Songs and Solos, sung by Ira D. Sankey at the meetings of Mr. Moody of Chicago.’”

This was the beginning of one of the most successful publishing ventures in the history of hymnody. With each new edition, Sankey added more hymns. During Sankey’s lifetime, an estimated 75 million copies were sold—including my prized copy.

The Moody-Sankey movement produced a galaxy of lyricists and composers who fueled the era of the Gospel song, such as Fanny Crosby, Daniel Whittle, Elisha Hoffman, Eliza Hewitt, Robert Lowry, William Doane, and Philip Bliss.

Because the Gospel songs of the Sankey era were born amid soul-winning rallies, they are simple, evangelistic, and Gospel-centered; and because they evolved from Sunday School songs they were easy to learn and easy to sing. Here’s a sample of some of the great hymns of the Gospel Song era.

  • Just as I Am (1836)
  • Have Thine Own Way, Lord (1907)
  • I Surrender All (1896)
  • Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling (1880)
  • Jesus, I Come (1887)
  • Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior (1868)
  • Whiter Than Snow (1872)
  • Almost Persuaded (1871)
  • Are You Washed in the Blood? (1878)
  • Nothing but the Blood (1876)
  • There is Power in the Blood (1899)
  • Saved by the Blood (1902)
  • When I See the Blood (1892)
  • Precious Blood (1881)
  • Near the Cross (1869)
  • Hallelujah for the Cross (1875)
  • Beneath the Cross of Jesus (1868)
  • Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It (1882)
  • Since I Have Been Redeemed (1884)
  • I Will Sing of My Redeemer (1876)
  • Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus (1858)
  • Rescue the Perishing (1869)
  • Tell Me the Old, Old Story (1867)
  • I Love to Tell the Story (1866)
  • Tell Me the Story of Jesus (1880)
  • We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations (1896)
  • I Will Sing the Wondrous Story (1886)
  • The Story that Never Grows Old (1898)
  • Throw Out the Life Line (1888)
  • Dare to Be a Daniel (1873)
  • I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go, Dear Lord (1892)
  • Let the Lower Lights Be Burning (1871)
  • Lord, Speak to Me that I May Speak (1872)
  • Blessed Assurance (1873)
  • A Shelter in the Time of Storm (1880)
  • He Leadeth Me (1862)
  • I Need Thee Every Hour (1871)
  • It is Well with My Soul (1873)
  • Safe in the Arms of Jesus (1868)
  • The Sweet By and By (1868)
  • A Child of the King (1877)

Sankey’s voice lost much of its power from the exhaustion of singing to thousands of people without amplification. Yet before his death in 1908, he was able to record a handful of solos on brown wax cylinders and by listening to them we can still hear the resonance and power of his voice.

After Moody and Sankey passed from the scene, the Gospel Song era continued into the twentieth century in the same atmosphere of mass evangelism. Billy Sunday and his music director, Homer Rodeheaver, kept the era of Gospel Song fresh and alive. In the middle of the twentieth century, another famous duo – Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows – burst on the evangelical scene, and Barrows gave Gospel Songs a new lease on life.

Until recently, American worshippers grew up singing a rich tapestry of hymns and Gospel songs over the course of a lifetime, memorizing their words and internalizing their message. Now the heritage of the hymns and Gospel songs is endangered. We should bear in mind the risks of tolerating a disposable attitude about our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, especially when our worship trends are driven by an industry that, in some cases, no longer values legacy. Every generation should write its own music and express its own praise. But how tragic to forget the richness of Christian worship through the ages!

For more about Ira Sankey and our great hymns and Gospel songs, check out my series of three books until the title: The Sings My Soul. Also check out Ira Sankey’s memoirs, My Life and the Story of Gospel Hymns.

If you want still more eyewitness accounts of the incredible ministry of Moody and Sankey, try out this old volume, which you can find on the used book websites. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year — The Wonderful Career of Moody and Sankey in Great Britain and America.