The study of history and historical figures are enriching to discover. The practice provides clarity and context for our own worship practices today. We begin to understand how we fit into the greater picture. It answers questions such as, “Why do we do this or that?” I thought it would be fun to research a church musician to discover what we can learn about their lives, music, and ministries. Today we look at the life of Ira Sankey.
Hymns like “We’re Marching to Zion,” “Faith is the Victory,” “Standing on the Promises of God,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” are only a few of the rich hymns written by Ira Sankey. Interestingly, we sang two Sankey hymns this past Sunday. The music of a man born 180 years ago is still sung today!
Ira David Sankey (August 28, 1840 – August 13, 1908), was an American gospel singer and composer, known for his long association with Dwight L. Moody in a series of religious revival campaigns in America and Britain during the closing decades of the 19th century. Sankey was a pioneer in the introduction of a musical style that influenced church services and evangelical campaigns for generations and the hymns that he wrote or popularized continued to be sung well into the 21st century.
Sankey, born in Pennsylvania, was an amateur singer and church worker when he was recruited by Moody in 1870 after the latter heard him sing at a convention. Until Moody’s death in 1899 the two campaigned together, Moody preaching while Sankey sang both old and new hymns, inspired by writers such as Fanny Crosby and Philip Bliss. Sankey also became a prolific composer of hymn tunes, and a compiler and editor of popular hymn collections, in particular Sacred Songs and Solos and Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs. The proceeds from these publishing ventures were used for a range of charitable purposes.
After Moody’s death, Sankey attempted to carry on the work alone but was defeated by ill-health and the eventual loss of his eyesight. He died in 1908. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1980.
Sankey’s career as a gospel singer contradicts the commonly held assumption that gospel music originated within the black communities in the southern states. The revivalist model that Moody and Sankey introduced established a paradigm for the conduct of rallies and services in evangelical churches for generations.
From the sales of his various hymn collections, which totaled over 50 million copies, Sankey acquired a considerable fortune, much of which he used for benefactions. These included a new YMCA building in New Castle, a building plot for the erection of a new Methodist Episcopal Church there, and large donations to the Moody schools in Northfields.
The centenary of Sankey’s birth was celebrated in New Castle in 1940. Choirs from over 30 churches participated, and Sankey’s portable organ was used as accompaniment. The 150th anniversary of his birth in 1990 was also marked in New Castle, where massed choirs performed a retrospective of Sankey’s songs. In 1980 Sankey was honored by induction into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
Listen to some of Ira Sankey’s music here: