Ira D. Sankey --> Moody's Music Maker
Bro. R. Spurgeon's Fundamentals of Music Class
December 18, 1993
Dwight Moody could not sing but knew the value of songs and singing in his evangelistic work. He enlisted the support of Ira Sankey in 1871 and together the two travelled to England as well as urban areas in the eastern United States 'reducing the population of hell by a million souls.' Moody was clearly the guiding light and visionary for the evangelistic endeavors, but he needed Sankey's songs to attract crowds and set the stage for his message. He would let Sankey begin with song, he would then preach and finally Sankey would conclude with a song as the sinners came forth.
By the end of their careers the names Moody and Sankey were linked and shared equal billing. A testament to the power of song is that the gospel singer Sankey was as important as the evangelist preacher Moody, their roles supplementing each other and each indispensable to the cause.
Ira Sankey, as song leader for Dwight Moody's revivals, made the gospel hymn a popular song, presenting the format of verse-chorus-
verse-chorus in a way that gave the songs emotional appeal and memorability. In making the hymn a popular song, Sankey evoked the charm of popular music and used the song as an instrument for religion to convict and convert people.
Sankey preferred a small reed organ to accompany his singing. He did not like a professional quartet choir or putting the singers behind a screen in back of a minister. He preferred a choir of the best singers placed in front of the congregation, near the minister. Part of this desire stemmed from his own view that singing was as important as preaching and that he was as important as the evangelist, a view supported by the popularity of the hymns he sang.
Sankey was born at Edinburg, Pennsylvania on August 28, 1840 and throughout his childhood sang hymns with the his family. He was a regular church attendee, singing in the choir, and was converted at the age of sixteen during a revival at The King's Chapel, a church about three miles from the Sankey home. Sankey's family moved to Newcastle in 1857 where his father was president of a bank. There Sankey finished high school and began working at the bank as well as singing and playing organ at a protestant church, where he was a leader of the choir.
Sankey joined the Union army in 1859 and, after his discharge, joined his father again, who was now a collector for the Internal Revenue Service. He married Fanny Edwards in September, 1863, and became known for his singing at Sunday school conventions and political gatherings. In 1867, a Young Men's Christian Association was formed in Newcastle and Sankey became involved, first as a secretary and later as president of that organization. In 1870, he was appointed a delegate to the YMCA' annual convention, held in Indianapolis that year, where he met Dwight Moody, whom he had heard about because of Moody's work in Chicago.
Moody and Sankey met after a morning prayer meeting where Sankey had led the singing of 'There is a Fountain Filled With Blood' after Moody had spoken. According to Sankey in his autobiography, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, Moody's first words to him, after an introduction, were, 'Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?' Sankey replied he lived in Pennsylvania, had a wife and two children and was employed by the government, whereupon Moody replied, 'You will have to give that up.' Sankey was reluctant to give up his job but Moody pressed him, saying, 'You must; I have been looking for you the last eight years'. [MLSGH]
Sankey stated that Moody could not sing and 'therefore had to depend upon all kinds of people to lead his service of song, and that sometimes when he had talked to a crowd of people, and was about to pull the net, someone would strike up a long meter hymn to a short meter tune, and thereby upset the whole meeting.' [MLSGH] The day after their meeting, Moody sent a note to Sankey, asking him to meet on a certain street corner. He complied and when he arrived, Moody produced a box and asked Sankey to climb up and sing a hymn. Never one to require much prompting to display his glorious voice in song, Sankey did so and a crowd gathered. After the song, Moody got on the box and delivered a short sermon, then invited everyone present to attend a meeting. He asked Sankey to close with another hymn and to sing while the crowd was led to the Opera House in Indianapolis where the YMCA was holding its convention.
Moody continued to press Sankey to join him but the singer returned to his home Pennsylvania. Six months later Moody sent an invitation for Sankey to join him in Chicago and the two met at Moody's home where Sankey once again sang. During the week they were together, the two went around to visit the sick and held meetings with Sankey singing and Moody preaching. The first song Sankey sang at the first house they visited was 'Scatter Seeds of Kindness.' This was also to be the last song Sankey sang at a public meeting with Moody 28 years later in Brooklyn in September, 1899. The song, written by Mrs. Albert Smith with music by S.J. Vail, was popular at the time and was written in the format of verse-chorus-verse-chorus that Sankey would use throughout his singing. It contained the emotional sentimentality that many of Sankey's hymns did and compared the best of Christianity to the best of nature.
Again Moody pressed Sankey to join him but again the singer declined, returning to the security of his job and life in Pennsylvania. However, upon discussing the offer with his pastor and some friends, Sankey was urged to join the evangelist, moving to Chicago in 1871. Based at Moody's Illinois Street Church, the two made the rounds in Chicago, singing and preaching at daily noon prayer meetings as well as regular services.
During the great Chicago fire Moody's church and home burned. In his autobiography, Sankey goes into great detail about how he labored all through the night to save his material belongings, finally procuring a boat so he could sit safely in Lake Michigan with his possessions. After the fire, Sankey left Chicago for Pennsylvania and did not see Moody for two months. The evangelist finally called him back though and they began to rebuild the church, using his skill at raising money to provide the funds.
Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey visited England for the first time together in June, 1873, and, beginning with some small gatherings in York, soon achieved fame that saw them preaching and singing before 20,000 in London. Sankey had begun compiling a musical 'scrapbook' with words and music to use during his singing. People often wanted to borrow it, sometimes not returning it in time for Sankey to lead the next service, so he had some words of hymns printed on small cards. Soon he complied a book containing some of the hymns and began selling them for sixpence each; there was a quick demand and he soon sold all he had printed. This was the start of his songbook, which popularized numerous songs, including 'Rock of Ages,' 'Onward, Christian Soldiers,' 'Whiter Than Snow,' 'It is Well With My Soul,' 'Jesus Loves Me,' 'Blessed Assurance' and others and caused the hymns he sang to be popularized in the print tradition as well as the oral tradition. It was Sankey's songbooks which perpetuated his songs--and furnished a healthy income--and the popularity of these songs is directly attributed to the fact he not only performed them during revivals but made them available in print as well.
Sankey was a large man, grandious and impressed with his own singing talent. He obviously had a full, rich voice. He seemed to be full of the assurance of salvation and his own election as one of God's chosen. He was born in the privileged upper middle class and remained there all his life. The Christianity he sang about was a 'social' gospel but a 'social' gospel for the middle and upper classes, drawn from the urban areas. For Moody and Sankey, Christianity was like a club, with members entitled to the privilege of Heaven as well as earthly benefits of peace and prosperity. All those not members were infidels, hopelessly lost and living in error.
One of Sankey's most popular songs was 'The Ninety and Nine' and reflected the concept of conversion as joining the elect. Sankey sang it often and his rendition is reported to have convicted many who had strayed from the fold of righteousness.
Since Moody and Sankey conducted revivals where the stated purpose was to win souls, it is obvious there would be many songs intended to convince the wayward sinner to return to the fold of Christianity. The story of the prodigal son is an ideal topic for such a sermon and Moody delivered it a number of times while Sankey sang this song, based on the prodigal son story.
The song 'Saved By Grace' was written by Fanny J. Crosby with music by George C. Stebbins. Crosby and P.P Bliss were particular favorites of Sankey and he sang and printed a number of their songs in his songbooks, setting a number of Crosby's lyrics to music as well.
Sankey provided the music for many poems and hymns he found from various sources, including periodicals, songs in other versions, or poems sent to him. He did, however, write several songs including 'Out of the Shadow-Land.'
This song--words and music--was written by Sankey alone. It was the last song he wrote and he did so for the occasion of Dwight Moody's funeral in 1899. The self-assurance of salvation by Christians is obviously present and Sankey had no doubt of his or Moody's reward with phrases like "Safe in the arms of God's infinite love" and 'Into the summer of endless delight' giving proof that he knew the fate of the believer. There is also the philosophy of the monarchy of believers--that God is a King and those who enter Heaven are welcomed as royal subjects in lines like 'Ours the bright crown and eternal reward' and 'Into the beautiful mansions above.' Like many of Sankey's hymns, there is an abundance of emotional sentimentality in the lyrics and a romantic view of religion that contrasts with the harsh darkness of life on earth. Perhaps it was Sankey's intense devotion to the sentimental view of salvation and Heaven that made it so appealing and struck an emotional chord in listener's hearts.
SOL = THE SOUND OF LIGHT: A HISTORY OF GOSPEL MUSIC by Don Cusic.
(Bowling Green State University Popular Press, Bowling Green,
Ohio 43403, 1990).
MLSGH = MY LIFE AND THE STORY OF THE GOSPEL HYMNS by Ira Sankey. (The
Sunday School Times, Philadelphia, 1907).
MWSA = MEN WHO SHAPED AMERICA by Robert Flood. (Moody Press, Chicago,
GR = GOSPEL RADIO: A 20TH-CENTURY TOOL FOR A 20TH-CENTURY CHALLENGE by
Barry C. Siedell. (Back to the Bible Broadcast, Box 82808
Lincoln, Nebraska 68501, 1971).