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Ira D. Sankey As I Knew Him

Ira D. Sankey As I Knew Him poster

Ira D. Sankey, the great evangel of song of the latter part of the nineteenth century, was born in the village of Edinburgh, Pennsylvania, August 28, 1840. When he was seventeen years of age his father, the Hon. David Sankey, moved with his family to Newcastle, Pennsylvania, where he became prominent in the activities of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Ira had a godly heritage which led him early in life to take an interest in religion, and in after years to become engaged in various forms of Christian work.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Mr. Sankey responded to President Lincoln’s first call for volunteers and while in the army his talent as a musician began to be known. Gathering to him a number of soldiers who were fond of singing, he organized the group and became its leader. He remained in the employ of the Government until 1871, when he became associated with D.L. Moody.

My first meeting with him, as I recall it after a lapse of more than fifty years, was at one of the noon prayer meetings conducted by Mr. Moody in the Methodist Church under the auspices of the Y.M.C.A. Mr. Sankey led the singing, and after we became acquainted he invited me occasionally to join him in a duet.

For two years he was closely associated with D.L. Moody’s Chicago work, taking occasional trips with him to adjacent cities in the interests of evangelistic, Sunday-school and Y.M.C.A. work, and conventions. During this time Mr. Sankey’s ability as a musician had not attracted special attention. But in 1873, in company with D.L. Moody, Sankey went to Great Britain where he found the field ripe for the introduction of the gospel in song. His simple melodies found their way into the hearts of the people, and to England belongs the credit of “discovering” the rare ability of this American singer of gospel song.

Sankey’s hymns were new to the people. This may account in part at least for the extraordinary reception accorded them. But if the singer had not possessed the outstanding gifts of voice and manner of interpretation, the fact that the songs were new would not have accounted for the remarkable results accomplished.

Mr. Sankey’s voice was recognized by those competent to judge as being rare in quality, purity and power; and the rendering of his songs left nothing to be desired in distinctness of enunciation or manner of delivery. He subordinated every desire for musical effect to the importance of impressing his message upon the hearts of his hearers. His manner was without ostentation. He sat at a low-topped organ when singing alone and played his own accompaniment. This greatly impressed the people. They felt that his chief desire was to reach their hearts rather than to display his gifts.

Recognizing all these factors as essential to success, the greatest is yet to be mentioned. God laid His hand upon Mr. Sankey, as He did upon his associate, D.L. Moody, for the accomplishment of His purpose through their instrumentality and the awakening of Great Britain and America. This, above all else, accounts for his broad and fruitful ministry.

In 1875—just a half century ago—having achieved world fame through the memorable awakening in Great Britain, Moody and Sankey launched an evangelistic campaign in America. Mr. Sankey’s part in this effort was crowned with success as it had been in Great Britain.

My acquaintance with Ira D. Sankey, which began at the noon meetings in Chicago, ripened into life-long friendship. We were closely associated in evangelistic and editorial work for twenty-five years. Our homes were in the same city. We met often, especially during the last two years of his life which were spent in total darkness and greatly reduced vitality. Blind and confined to his bed, I took occasion to call upon him frequently and to sit by his bedside and talk of the days gone by. We recalled experiences which we had in common.

On one of these visits he said to me: “George, when you get Home, you will find me on Spurgeon Street.” It was evident that his heart was set upon his home-going for he spoke frequently of longing to be with the Lord. Even in his weakness he would occasionally sing a verse of one of his old songs though his voice was only a faint echo of its former greatness. I recall his singing on one or more occasions that beautiful hymn of Dr. Horatius Bonar, the music for which Mr. Sankey had written, entitled “Only Remembered by What I have Done.” It showed beautifully the trend of his mind. He had come to the place where the acclaim of the multitude and the praise of friends no longer had an appeal for him. He was looking forward eagerly to the time when he should join the choir invisible, when he could see with undimmed eyes his Lord whom he had served with such loyalty throughout his great career. In 1909, on the eve of his sixty-ninth birthday, he went home to Glory.