Evangelist and composer Ira David Sankey was born today in Edinburg, Pennsylvania (near the Ohio border) in 1840. In his autobiography, he recounts how singing was a part of his life from his earliest memories:
"... it was one of my chief joys to meet with other members of our family around the great log fire in the old homestead, and spend the long winter evenings singing with them the good old hymns and tunes of the church, which was the only music we had in those days."
Church attendance provided him with another place to sing, and by the time he was in high school he was leading the choir at a Methodist church in New Castle. He campaigned for the installation of an organ, which had been considered "wicked and worldly" and eventually succeeded ("Only one or two of the old members left the church during the singing."). After he traveled to Ohio for a musical convention where he met composer William B. Bradbury, his father was unsure about his chosen occupation:
"I am afraid that boy will never amount to anything; all he does is run about the country with a hymn-book under his arm."
Following military service in the Civil War, Sankey returned home, married Fanny Edwards, a member of his choir, and joined his father working for the newly-established Internal Revenue Service, which may have temporarily assuaged his father's misgivings. But Ira met evangelist Dwight Moody in 1870 at a YMCA convention in Indianapolis, and when he joined Moody's organization a few years later his subsequent career could have been characterized as "running about the world with a hymn-book under his arm!" Sankey became the song leader for the internationally-acclaimed revivals that Moody led. Moody had recognized Sankey's talents immediately and knew that the power of congregational singing would be key to the success of his work.
They introduced gospel songs to millions over the course of their careers, believing that style was most conducive to their message. Sankey compiled the songs that they used into a popular series of hymn-books titled Gospel Hymns, and these volumes were later combined into one. The profits from these books enabled Sankey to build a new YMCA building and to buy a lot for his church in his home town, among many other contributions.
Most of the songs used by Sankey and Moody were contemporary works, written and composed by popular names of the day such as Fanny Crosby, Philip P. Bliss, William Howard Doane, Lucy Rider Meyer, Robert Lowry, George C. Stebbins, and many others. However, they also used older texts that would have been known to their audiences, often adding new tunes that were more in keeping with the music of their revival events (as the retuned hymns movement does today). This eighteenth century text by Philip Doddridge (with additional stanzas added some years later by Augustus Montague Toplady) was sung to a new gospel tune (and with an added refrain) by Sankey.
Grace, ’tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to my ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.
Saved by grace alone!
This is all my plea;
Jesus died for humankind,
And Jesus died for me!
Grace first inscribed my name
In God’s eternal book;
’Twas grace that brought me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.
Grace led my roving feet
To tread the heavenly road,
And new supplies each hour I meet,
While pressing on to God.
Grace taught my soul to pray
And made my eyes o’erflow;
’Twas grace which kept me to this day,
And will not let me go.
O let thy grace inspire
My soul with strength divine
May all my powers to thee aspire,
And all my days be thine.
Philip Doddridge, 1740 (st. 1, 3, 5); alt.
Augustus Montague Toplady, 1776 (st. 2, 4); alt.
Tune: CHARMING GRACE (S. M. with refrain)
Ira David Sankey, 19th cent.
On YouTube you can see a video by a singer named Dave Willetts who portrays Sankey (alongside an unidentified actor as Moody) and leads a choir in some of his songs.
Seven Years Ago: Ira David Sankey
Five Years Ago: William Hiley Bathurst
Three Years Ago: William Hiley Bathurst