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About Ira David Sankey
Ira D. Sankey (August 28, 1840 – August 13, 1908), known as The Sweet Singer of Methodism, was an American gospel singer and composer, associated with evangelist Dwight L. Moody.
Ira David Sankey, son of David Sankey, known as the father of Lawrence County, and Mary Leeper Sankey, was born August 28, 1840, in Edinburgh, on the outskirts of New Castle, Pennsylvania.
When Sankey was 16, he was converted at a revival meeting at the King's Chapel United Methodist Church, which was about three miles away from his home.
When he was young, Sankey served in the Civil War. Afterward, he took employment at the IRS, and also the YMCA. He became increasingly well known as a Gospel singer, and eventually attracted the attention of noted evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The two men met at a YMCA convention in Indianapolis, Indiana, in June, 1870. Several months later, Sankey attended his first evangelistic meeting with Moody. Shortly thereafter, Sankey resigned his government position.
Sankey married Fanny V. Edwards, one of his choir members, in September 1863. They had three sons.
In October 1871, Sankey and Moody were in the middle of a revival meeting when the Great Chicago Fire broke out. The two men barely escaped the conflagration with their lives. Sankey ended up watching the city burn from a rowboat far out on Lake Michigan.
On June 7, 1872, Sankey and Moody made the first of several joint visits to the UK. Sankey's hymns were promoted by the famous London Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, long afterwards. While in Edinburgh, they raised £10,000 for the purpose of building a new home for the Carrubbers Close Mission. During their time in Edinburgh, the foundation stone was laid and the building remains one of the few on the Royal Mile which today serves the same purpose for which it was built.
When Rev. Moody was asked by a local pastor what he felt was the primary contribution that a gospel singer and song leader such as Ira Sankey brought to his meetings he replied, "If we can only get people to have the words of the Love of God coming from their mouths it's well on its way to residing in their hearts."
Sankey wrote several hymns and songs, and composed and arranged music for many more. He collaborated with Philip Bliss and then later with James McGranahan and George Stebbins) on a series of "sacred song" collections published in the United States by Biglow & Main (a company of which he was president from 1895 to 1908), and in the United Kingdom by Morgan & Scott, publishers also of his most enduring work, the popular Sacred Songs and Solos (widely known as "Sankey & Moody") which eventually ran to over 1200 works and is still in use today. He was blind from glaucoma the last five years of his life, and no doubt found a kindred spirit in his friend and music-making partner, blind hymnodist Fanny Crosby.
Stories of his hymn compositions seem a fitting way to conclude this biography. His first and most famous composition 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. Horatius 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 written by Elizabeth Clephane in 1868. She died in 1869, little realizing her contribution to the Christian world.
Ira D. Sankey died August 13, 1908 in Brooklyn.
In 1979–80, the Gospel Music Association recognized Sankey's prodigious contributions to gospel music by listing him in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.