On the centenary of the death of the singer and composer, Ira D. Sankey, Alan Edwards looks at the role he played in nineteenth-century evangelism
Those who recall Billy Grahams Crusades in the Fifties are sure to remember the resonant voice of soloist George Beverley Shea. Though vital his role, Shea never achieved the double-billing fame of Ira D. Sankey, the soloist teamed with the great nineteenth-century evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. From their initial cooperation in 1871, it was always Moody and Sankey. If Moody s continuing memorial is Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, Sankey, whose centenary of death falls this year, lives on via his music; above all through Sacred Songs and Solos, for years a leading evangelical hymn collection, always called just ‘Sankey’.
Ira David Sankey was born in 1840 in Edinburg, Pennsylvania, an appropriately named birthplace, given his Scots ancestry. Like St Matthew before him, Sankey became a tax collector and then received a sudden call to mission.
The 1870 Indianapolis YMCA Convention was failing to inspire because of poor singing, until Ira, an accomplished baritone, was asked to lead. His fine voice brought the meeting to life. He had developed his talent providing music for services during his time as a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. Moody, an evangelist attending, realized that here was the musician for his missions. Sankey accepted his invitation and a thirty-year partnership was born.
Sankey brought inspired singing to both old hymns and new compositions. He was fortunate in contemporary writers such as Fanny Crosby (‘To God be the Glory!’) and P.P. Bliss (‘Hold the Fort’, inspired by a Civil War siege). However, it was as a composer that he excelled. Perhaps his most memorable composition was the haunting tune for ‘The Ninety and Nine’. He had spotted Elizabeth Clephane’s poem in a Scottish newspaper, tore it out and pocketed it. At the evening rally, Moody asked for a closing song. Surprised, Sankey pulled out the poem, prayed and composed as he sang.
Moody and Sankey made several British tours. Many Anglicans disliked their emotionalism. However,
Queen Victoria was impressed, as were the Kinnairds, a prominent Evangelical family. (The Hon. A.E Kinnaird scored in the first FA Cup Final. No stranger to emotion, his goal celebration was to stand on his head.) From the other side of the churchmanship divide, support came from Gladstone and that eccentric visionary Fr Ignatius.
This will be no surprise to anyone familiar with the evangelistic sermons of Fr Stanton or the missions led by Mirfield’s Fr Bull. If the ritualists took the Catholic revival from Oxford to ‘Oxton, Moody and Sankey took Evangelicalism from Clapham to Clapton. Both groups used emotion and colour to touch the hearts of those who hadn’t done so well out of Victorian industrial progress.
In America, Moody and Sankey conducted prison missions, a work shared with the blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby. It was hearing a prisoner call ‘Don’t pass me by, Jesus,’ after a service that had included the account of Jesus and Bartimaeus, which caused her to write ‘Pass Me Not O Gentle Saviour’, one of Sankey’s most famous solos. Sankey too spent his final years in blindness, dying in Brooklyn in August 1908.
Part of his success lay in popularizing Gospel Songs, verses telling a story. One such, ‘The Model Church’, describes the warm welcome given by a church to a poor man, at a time when pew rents existed and the poor knew their place – at the back.
Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos probably won’t be found today in any FiF parish but does any church still use its wonderful Anglican descendant, The Mirfield Mission Hymn Book’? For me, it recalls SSF, Cable Street, Fr Charles’ violin leading ‘Thou Didst Leave thy Throne and thy Kingly Crown’. When I mentioned Sankey in an article in the Methodist Recorder, it received many letters about the survival of Sankey’s hymns, including an account of an annual Cornish beach ‘Sankey Sing-along’.