Ira David Sankey,1840-1908, Vocalist
Written by: Unknown Posted on: 03/13/2003
Ira David Sankey
BORN: August 28, 1840
DIED: August 13, 1908
Brooklyn, New York
LIFE SPAN: 67 years, 11 months, 16 days
SANKEY WAS THE PIONEER MUSIC DIRECTOR of the masses in Ameri-
can evangelism. The Sweet Singer of Methodism brought to the
Moody revivals zest and inspiration that prepared hearts for
the messages of the famed evangelist. He set the pattern for
those who later followed in his footsteps--Charles Alexander,
Homer Rodeheaver, and Cliff Barrows. More than any other man,
he was the one who ushered in the gospel song era. Sankey was
a great leader of congregations and choirs. He was a soloist
of great ability, singing special music wherever he went. He
also helped in the inquiry room.
Sankey seldom wrote poetry as did Fanny Crosby and
P.P. Bliss. However, he did compose music and provide the
tunes for some of the great hymns written during those days.
Sankey can be credited with providing the melody for the fol-
lowing: A Shelter in the Time of Storm, Faith Is the Victory,
Grace 'Tis a Charming Sound, Hiding in Thee, I Am Praying for
You, The Ninety and Nine, There'll Be No Dark Valley, Trust-
ing Jesus, Under His Wings, and When the Mists Have Rolled
Ira David Sankey was born into the home of pious
Methodists, David and Mary Sankey. One of the chief pleasures
of his boyhood was to join the family circle around the great
log fireplace. Long winter evenings were spent singing the
old hymns of the church. He learned to read music this way
and by the age of eight, he could sing many famous hymn tunes
correctly. Spiritual interests were kindled by a Mr. Fraser,
who loved children. Along with his own sons, he took Sankey
to a Sunday School held in an old schoolhouse. Sankey had
educational opportunities that many were denied. He became a
Christian in 1856 at the age of 16, while attending revival
meetings at a church known as the King's Chapel, located
about three miles from his home. A year later the family
moved to Newcastle where he became a member of the Methodist
Episcopal Church. His talents were soon recognized and he was
elected superintendent of the Sunday School, director of the
choir, and class leader. His father was the president of the
bank which also provided young Sankey with a job.
He became active in the fight to bring musical in-
struments into church services and he was responsible for the
first organ to be installed in his own church. Here he gained
invaluable experience and his voice began to attain that
rich, resonant quality which was to make him world famous
When President Lincoln called for men to help the
government in 1860, Sankey was one of the first young men to
enroll as a soldier. His company was sent to Maryland. In the
army, his love of singing endeared him to his companions and
he often led the singing for religious services held in the
camp. He organized a male chorus in the company and assisted
the chaplain with services. President Lincoln appointed his
father as a Collector of Internal Revenue and after his term
of service and the Civil War was over, Sankey returned to
Newcastle to assist his father and enter governmental ser-
vice. He remained with the Internal Revenue Department for
At the age of 23, on September 9, 1863, he married
Fanny V. Edwards, who was a member of his choir and a teacher
in his Sunday School. The Sankeys had three sons, one of whom
was born in Scotland.
In 1867, a branch of the Y.M.C.A. was organized at
Newcastle and he became its secretary and, later, president.
Many years later, he had the pleasure of presenting a
Y.M.C.A. building to his city. The building, including a gym-
nasium and library, cost more than $40,000. The funds were
realized from the sale of his gospel hymns.
Sankey's fame as a singer spread throughout western
Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. He received invitation after
invitation to sing for conventions, conferences, and politi-
He attended so many musical conventions, and spent so
much of his time in religious work, that his father once
said, "I'm afraid Ira will never amount to anything. All he
does is run around the country with a hymn-book under his
To which his mother replied, "Well, I'd rather see
him with a hymn-book under his arm, than with a whiskey bot-
tle in his pocket!"
Sankey had no desire to make music a profession. It
was never his custom to receive any remuneration for his ser-
vices. In his work with the Y.M.C.A., he found an ever-widen-
ing field of usefulness. In June of 1870, he was appointed a
delegate to the International Convention in Indianapolis. For
several years he had read in the religious press of the work
of Dwight L. Moody. In connection with the convention, it was
announced that Moody was to speak at an early morning prayer
meeting in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning. Sankey was
most anxious to hear and meet the man. Having arrived a lit-
tle late at the meeting, he sat near the door with a Presby-
terian minister who urged Sankey to start a song. At the
right moment, as Moody requested a song, Sankey started to
sing There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. The congregation
joined in heartily and the meeting took on a new impetus. At
the close of the service, he was introduced to Moody, who
abruptly asked him terse questions. When asked about his
business, Sankey replied that he was employed by the govern-
ment. Moody remarked, "You will have to give it up!"
Nonplussed, Sankey listened to the evangelist who said, "I
have been looking for you for eight years." Sankey was inter-
ested but not ready to render a decision. Moody asked him to
meet him at a certain street corner the next day. Moody
brought a big box and asked Sankey to mount it and then re-
quested that he sing something. Sankey complied and sang Am I
a Soldier of the Cross. Moody then began to speak to a large
crowd of working men, who had left the mills to hear him. At
the end of the service, he announced that he would continue
the meeting at the Opera House. Sankey led that large packed
Opera House gathering in singing Shall We Gather at the
It took Sankey six months to consent to spend a week
with Moody in Chicago. This visit concluded with a great mass
meeting at Farwell Hall where Sankey sang Come Home, Prodigal
Child at the last service. Soon, his resignation was sent to
the Secretary of the Treasury, and a life of faith began.
At the age of 30, Sankey began his work with Moody
early in 1871 and labored with him daily until the great
Chicago Fire erupted on October 8, 1871, which destroyed ev-
erything. Moody had just finished speaking to a crowded
Farwell Hall audience. As Sankey was singing, in the middle
of a song, his voice was drowned by the clanging of fire en-
gines. Confusion arose from the streets and Moody dismissed
the congregation. The two men parted, not to meet again for
Sankey had spent many hectic hours in the confusion
that followed the fire. At first, he tried to aid in prevent-
ing the spread of the flames, but a large wind all but doomed
the city. The fire was moving toward the business section and
Farwell Hall. The flames followed so closely, he was com-
pelled to shake falling embers from his coat. When he arrived
at his room, he grabbed his most valued possessions and left
the building. He could find no means of transportation so
headed toward Lake Michigan. After many harrowing experi-
ences, he reached the lake shore in safety, exhausted, and
very thirsty. He found a small rowboat, and, putting his pos-
sessions on board, rowed out far enough to find fresh water.
Tying his boat in position, he watched the destruction of the
A whole day passed and now, on the evening of the
9th, Sankey determined to return to shore, even though the
city was still engulfed in flames. To his dismay, he discov-
ered that the line which fastened his boat had broken. He was
swept out on the rolling lake and for a time his life was in
danger. But God overruled and brought him to shore safely.
He took a train for his Pennsylvania home and stayed
there until a brief telegram arrived from Moody asking him if
he would please return to Chicago and assist in the new min-
istry at the crude temporary tabernacle that had been re-
cently constructed. Returning, Sankey was to discover that he
and Moody would often sleep together in a corner of the tab-
ernacle with only a single lounge for a bed. During these
busy months Moody was soliciting funds for the recon-
busy months Moody was soliciting funds for the reconstruction
of the church. Soon, a new edifice was dedicated.
Sankey moved his family to Chicago in October of
1872. While Moody was in England during this year, Sankey,
with good assistance, kept the great work in Chicago going.
Upon Moody's return, they seemed to work together better than
ever. An evangelistic campaign in Springfield, Illinois, saw
unusual power and blessing.
About this time, Sankey's esteemed friend, P.P.
Bliss, returned from Europe with impressive engagements lined
up. He made Sankey an enticing offer to accompany him and as-
sist in the services of song--but Sankey declined. The part-
nership with Moody continued as they worked well together.
Moody would arouse and startle his hearers with his preaching
and at the conclusion of his appeal, Sankey would rise and
sing. His melodious voice was soothing and comforting, with
deep conviction, and he believed that souls could be saved
with each note he sang. Moody decided that Sankey would be
his associate on the next trip abroad, and agreed to pay him
$100 per month.
The memorable 1873-75 revival throughout the British
Isles began in June of 1873. Mrs. Sankey and Moody's family
accompanied the team. En route to Liverpool, where they
landed, they had been notified that the men who had invited
them to come to England were dead and no meetings were sched-
uled. Remembering the Y.M.C.A. at York had invited him to
speak there, should he ever return to England, Moody obtained
the use of the Independent Chapel and evangelistic services
were announced. The first service was attended by fewer than
fifty persons and Sankey found he people unaccustomed to his
methods and to his type of songs. F.B. Meyer, a leading Bap-
tist minister of the city, helped turn the tide by his enthu-
siastic endorsement of the team. Invitations began to come
from various towns. At Sunderland, Sankey sang several favor-
ite songs, unaware of the opposition by the pastor to solos,
organ music, and choirs. However, the Reverend Rees was im-
pressed and posted notices announcing that Mr. Sankey, from
Chicago, would "sing the gospel." This phrase came to be
widely used thereafter. One night as Sankey sang Come Home, O
Prodigal, Come Home, a cry pierced the silence and a young
man rushed forward and fell in the arms of his father, beg-
ging forgiveness. The entire congregation was impressed and
hundreds pressed to an adjoining room seeking prayer and par-
don. Next came Newcastle, where he first began to use the
songs Sweet By and By and Christ Arose. Here, the first choir
was organized and revival fires burned for two months.
The Edinburgh, Scotland, crusade began on November
23, 1873. Apart from the Psalms, music was not used to any
degree. Man-made hymns had much prejudice against them. Moody
caught a cold and could not speak the first night. J.H.
Wilson was to take his place. Tactfully, Sankey asked the
congregation to join in singing a portion of the 100th Psalm.
Scripture and prayer followed. Sankey then sang his first
solo, Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By. The intense silence bore
testimony that this novel method of presenting the gospel was
being accepted. After the message, he selected Hold the Fort
and asked the congregation to join in the chorus. Scotland
was now ready for the ministry of Moody and Sankey. Gospel
singing and the organ were now being accepted. The rest of
the amazing ministries of those days is told in the biography
of Dwight L. Moody (number three in this present Fundamental
Baptist Church Biography Series). The 1875 climax was the
great London Crusade.
Arriving back home in America, on August 14, 1875,
their first services were in Northfield, Massachusetts,
Moody's home town. Moody's mother professed conversion there
and Sankey sang The Ninety and Nine for the first time in
The team's first large campaign in the states began
on October 31, 1875, in Brooklyn. Sankey's choir numbered 250
voices, aided by a large organ. However, when he sang, he ac-
companied his solos on a small organ, a practice which he al-
ways preferred, not wanting the music to detract from the
message. The next crusade began in Philadelphia on November
21st where, despite torrential rains, 9,000 showed up for the
opening service. Here, his choir numbered 500 voices. The New
York crusade began on February 7, 1876, at the Great Roman
Hippodrome on Madison Avenue. A choir of 600 voices was led
by Sankey, and Moody had his largest audience to date.
Sankey's health was somewhat impaired, so he returned
to his home in Newcastle. He busied himself preparing his new
song book, Gospel Hymns Two, with his good friend, P.P.
Bliss, assisting him. Bliss was to die a tragic death later
that year, while on his way to visit the Chicago Crusade. The
Boston Crusade began on January 28, 1877, in a temporary
structure, and the staid, old city enjoyed his renditions as
much as any.
Cities across the nation, in Canada and Mexico, were
to enjoy the team in the years that followed. Back in the
British Isles, 1881-84, they found many converts of former
Sankey's publishing ventures grew to tremendous
proportions. His first hymn book, published in England in
1873, was called Sacred Songs and Solos. It included 23 se-
lections. Then his Gospel Hymn series followed, with numbers
one to six being published between 1875 and 1891. These con-
tained hundreds of hymns still widely used. Several editions
o these enjoyed sales that totaled millions of copies in many
languages. Royalties from his song books would have given him
a modest fortune, However, much of the royalty income was
used to help Moody's educational ventures, especially the
erection of his first school, Northfield School for Girls.
Sankey was active in the Northfield Conferences which Moody
conducted, and Sankey lived in Northfield in the summer.
Fanny Crosby, also, spent several summers with the Sankeys
Sankey, his family, and a few friends sailed from New
York in January of 1898 for a visit to the Holy Land. This
was one of the great delights of his life. In 1899, Sankey
returned to Great Britain. There, he held special services in
sacred song and story, in some 30 cities and towns. It was
this extended engagement that impaired his health to the ex-
tent that he eventually lost his eyesight.
The team of Moody and Sankey was to be together for
the last time at a Brooklyn Church pastored by a Dr. Storr.
The two spent a Sunday together in New York and then parted
for the last time. Moody's last letter was dated November 6,
1899, and he died soon after. Sankey continued conducting
services of sacred song and story for some time.
As blindness overtook him in 1903, he lived out his
days at his Brooklyn, New York, home on South Oxford Street.
During his last five years, he had extreme weakness and much
pain as glaucoma had destroyed the optic nerve. Sankey main-
tained a sweet spirit of patience, and his mind remained
clear to the end. Of all his earthly friends, who cheered him
during his lonely hours, none proved a greater benediction
than his beloved friend, Fanny Crosby. They would sing, pray,
and fellowship in their blindness and discomfort. How they
rejoiced in knowing that they would soon be together in glory
with the Saviour they adored and reunited with D.L. Moody and
other loved ones.
His publication, My Life and the Story of Gospel
Hymns, came out in 1906. It was written from the memory of
the original manuscript, which was lost in a fire in 1901 at
Battle Creek, Michigan, just prior to publication.
Sankey passed on in his sleep without a struggle. Fu-
neral services were held at the LaFayette Avenue Presbyterian
Church, where Sankey was a member during his latter years.
Several of his own hymns were sung at the funeral by an aged
cousin, C.C. Sankey, including: The Ninety and Nine, There'll
Be No Dark Valley, Faith Is the Victory, and Hiding in Thee.
The sermon was delivered by the pastor, Charles E. Locke.
Buried in the local Greenwood Cemetery, his grave stone has a
bar of music with `Good Night' and `God Is Love' above and
Stories of his hymn compositions seem a fitting way
to conclude this biography. His first and most famous compo-
sition was The Ninety and Nine. Sankey and Moody were en
route from Glasgow to Edinburgh, Scotland, in May, 1874, as
they were to hold a three-day campaign there. This was at the
urgent request of the Ministerial Association. Prior to
boarding the train, Sankey bought a weekly newspaper for a
penny. He found nothing of interest but a sermon by Henry W.
Beecher and some advertisements. Then, he found a little
piece of poetry in a corner of one column that he liked, and
he read it to Moody, but only received a polite reply. Sankey
clipped the poem and tucked it in his pocket. At the noon day
service of the second day of the special series, Moody
preached on The Good Shepherd. Horatious Bonar added a few
thrilling words and then Moody asked Mr. Sankey if he had a
final song. An inner voice prompted him to sing the hymn that
he found on the train. With conflict of spirit, he thought,
this is impossible! The inner voice continued to prod him,
even though there was no music to the poem, so he acquiesced.
As calmly as if he had sung it a thousand times, he placed
the little piece of newspaper on the organ in front of him.
Lifting up his heart in a brief prayer to Almighty God, he
then laid his hands on the keyboard, striking a chord in A
flat. Half speaking and half singing, he completed the first
stanza, which was followed by four more. Moody walked over
with tears in his eyes and said, "Where did you get that
hymn?" The Ninety and Nine became his most famous tune and
his most famous sale from that time on. The words were writ-
ten by Elizabeth Clephane in 1868. She died in 1869, little
realizing her contribution to the Christian world.
Trusting Jesus was written by Edgar Page Stites in
1876. The poem first appeared in a newspaper and was handed
to D.L. Moody. He, in turn, gave it to his partner, Ira
Sankey, and asked him to set it to music. Mr. Sankey agreed
to do so, on one condition, that Moody would vouch for the
doctrine taught in the verses, which he did. It became the
favorite hymn of W.B. Riley.
A Shelter in the Time of Storm was written by V.J.
Charlesworth. Sankey found it in a little paper published in
London, called the Postman. This song became a favorite of
fishermen in the northern part of England. Sankey composed a
practical melody for church use in preference to a former
weird, minor sound it first had.
I Am Praying for You was written by Samuel O'Malley
Cluff. Sankey found the poem on a leaflet, in 1874, when he
was with Moody in Ireland. The song was first used in the
Moody-Sankey campaign in London in 1875. This was his second
musical setting with only the famous, The Ninety and Nine,
When The Mists Have Rolled Away was written in 1883
by Annie Herbert Barker. Mr. Sankey added the musical touch
and another hymn was born.
Other Sankey songs, not mentioned in the beginning,
were: Why Not Tonight?; Yet There Is Room; Welcome, Wanderer,
Welcome; Take Me As I Am; It Is Finished; Jesus, I Will Trust
Thee; Now Now, My Child; Tell It Out; The Smitten Rock, and
one of the tunes of the famed Beneath the Cross of Jesus.
Who knows--perhaps it was Moody, rather than Sankey,
who benefited most at that fateful meeting in Indianapolis in
1870, where God brought their ministries together.
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold:
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
Away from the tender Shepherd's care.
But all through the mountains thunder-riven
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gates of heaven,
"Rejoice, I have found My sheep."
And the angels echoed around the throne,
Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own.
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