Ira D. Sankey

Bios - SankeyIra David Sankey was born in the little town of Edinburg, on the Mahoning River in Western Pennsylvania, on 28 August 1840. He was the son of David Sankey and Mary Leeper Sankey, the former of English and the latter of Scotch-Irish descent. His father David Sankey was a banker, editor, revenue collector, and served at one time as a member of his state Senate. His mother is credited with teaching the young Ira his first hymn. His parents were Methodist, and together, they raised their nine children according to Christian standards.

Sankey came from a large family. He had four brothers and four sisters. One of Sankey's major boyhood pleasures was to sing with his family circled around the great log fireplace. Many an evening was spent in this activity. Sankey had excellent school training, and while he was still young he became interested in religious work. His earliest recollection of spiritual matters revolved around a Mr. Fraser. This man who took young Ira along with his own sons to Sunday school, which was held in a schoolhouse. Sankey was converted at the age of sixteen while attending revival meetings at King's Chapel, a church located about three miles from his home.

In 1857, the Sankey family moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania where his father assumed the presidency of the local bank. At New Castle, he became a member of the Jefferson Street Methodist Episcopal Church. His spirituality, ability for leadership, and musical talents were soon recognized and he was elected Superintendent of the Sunday School, director of the Choir, and eventually became a class leader. He became active in the movement to bring musical instruments into church services and he was responsible for the first organ to be installed in his church. This experience would prove to be invaluable to him. His voice also began to attain that full, rich, and resonant quality which was to make him world famous in coming years. Encouraged by songwriter Philip Philips and especially William Bradbury, Sankey began his career by singing solos at local gatherings.

In the spring of 1861, in response to a call for volunteers by President Lincoln, Sankey enlisted in the 22d Pennsylvania Regiment and was sent to Maryland. While in the army, he kept current in his religious work by organizing camp meetings and often led singing for the religious services in the camp. When his time of service expired, he went into business as a collector for his father, but his interest in religious matters was so keen that he spent much of his time going to conventions and rallies in Pennsylvania and neighboring towns in eastern Ohio. Gifted with a fine voice, which had continued to be cultivated, his services as a gospel singer were in great demand in these areas.

On 9 September 1863, Sankey married a member of his choir, Fanny V. Edwards, the daughter of Hon. John Edwards, a member of the State Senate. The Sankey's had several children; one of whom, David, also become a noted musician himself. In 1867, when Sankey was twenty-seven years of age, a branch of the YMCA was organized at New Castle, of which he became its secretary and later president.

In June of 1870, Sankey's first meeting with D. L. Moody took place at Indianapolis where the young singer was sent as a delegate to an international convention of the YMCA. When the singing had been become dull and uninspiring, Rev. Robert McMillen asked Sankey to take charge of it. Sankey's singing resulted in the audience becoming stirred up and enlivened. Moody was so well pleased with Sankey's singing that he impulsively asked Sankey to give up his career, to join him in Chicago, and to help him in his Christian work. However, Sankey was not ready at that time to make such a life-changing decision.

Six months later, Sankey consented to spend a week with Moody in his work at Chicago. The two visited the sick, held noonday prayer meetings, conducted services at the Illinois Street Church. Many people during his visit indicated that they felt that Sankey's work was with Moody. Consequently, Sankey began to work with Moody early in 1871. The two labored together until the Moody's church was destroyed in the great fire that swept Chicago on 8 October 1871. In the aftermath of the fire, he returned to Pennsylvania.

However, two months later he received a message from Moody urging him to come back to Chicago. He accepted the invitation and he eventually moved his family to Chicago in October 1872. Moody and Sankey worked together to the reviving of many churches and scores of individual Christians. In every aspect, Sankey was the counterpart of Moody. He had a most pleasing appearance, his countenance was expressive, and it glowed with an inner radiance. In fact, Moody put Sankey in charge of his ministry at the Tabernacle during the time that he was on his second tour of England.

Moody and Sankey visited England for the first time together in June 1873, and, beginning with some small gatherings in York, soon achieved fame that saw them preaching and singing before 20,000 in London. They remained in Britain for the years 1873-5, holding meetings in many of the leading cities of England, Scotland, and Ireland. During the years that followed, they made several trips to Great Britain, and in the campaign of 1881-4, they held meetings in hundreds of places, including ninety-nine in Scotland alone.

In 1874, while holding a meeting in Burdette Road, London, Sankey and Moody visited a Romani camp nearby in Epping Forest. Their visit attracted a small crowd of Romani children. Sankey put his hand on one of boys that had gathered and spoke to him saying, "May the Lord make a preacher of you, my boy." Fifteen years later, Sankey took a drive in Brooklyn with the English evangelist Rodney "Gypsy" Smith. During this drive Smith divulged to Sankey that it was he whom Sankey had laid his hands on fifteen years earlier in the Romani camp.

Sankey had the practice of compiling a musical 'scrapbook' with words and music that he used during his singing. The song The Ninety and Nine began as such an item in Sankey's scrapbook. Written originally as a poem by Elizabeth C. Clephane, Sankey was so impressed by its message when he discovered it that he immediately called Moody's attention to it. However, the men were traveling from Glasgow to Edinburgh at the time and Moody was so engrossed in reading a letter from Chicago that he did not hear a word of what Sankey said. Undaunted, Sankey cut out the poem from the newspaper that he had he found it in and placed it in his scrapbook. The next day at the noon meeting of the Free Assembly Hall in Edinburgh, following Moody's message on the "The Good Shepherd", Moody asked Sankey for a solo appropriate for that subject. Sankey obliged by singing the poem he had found the previous day. Moody, along with the crowd, was greatly moved and said that he had never heard anything like in all his life. In response, Sankey told Moody that he had read the words to him just the day before, but that he did not hear them. Thus, the song, The Ninety and Nine was born.

This is typical of how Sankey wrote his songs. He set the poetry of others to simple music, often drawing heavily on popular tunes and rhythms. Occasionally Sankey did write his own lyrics, but more often he popularized the works of others. His gospel songs were always easy to learn and sing, and he used them effectively to enhance Moody's messages. Rousing congregational singing was an important feature of the Moody-Sankey campaigns. He insisted that all choir members should be Christians and instructed the organist to play softly, for he felt that it is the singing, and not the music, that should be emphasized in the service. The songs of Sankey did much to revolutionize church music and they pioneered the way for a succession of evangelistic singers. In this way, Sankey became the model musician for many who have accompanied major revivalists since Moody.

Famous songwriters Fanny Crosby and P. P. Bliss were particular favorites of Sankey and he sang and printed a number of their songs in his songbooks. He also set a number of Crosby's lyrics to music as well. Even though Sankey wrote much of his music from poems and hymns that he came across, he did entirely write several songs also. The words and music to the song, Out of the Shadow-Land, was one of them. This particular song was composed for the occasion of D. L. Moody's funeral in 1899 and it was also Sankey's last.

The small cabinet organ that Sankey used as an accompaniment to his voice was referred to in Scotland as the "Kist O' Whistles," and his songbooks were called the "Little Sankeys." The evangelistic campaigns conducted by Moody and Sankey in the U. S., Great Britain, and even far off Australia were attended by overflowing crowds. The preaching of Moody and the singing of Sankey were a powerful combination that attracted many people. Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos (1873) and Gospel Hymns Nos.1-6 (1875-1891) sold by the hundreds of thousands. Sankey assigned the royalties that he received to the Northfield Schools in Massachusetts. He had many other beneficiaries as well, such as $40,000 used to construct buildings for the YMCA in New Castle, the lot on which the First Methodist Church in New Castle was located, and two large buildings to the schools in Northfield.

Sankey seemed to be fully assured of his election and salvation as one of God's chosen. In 1898, Mr. Sankey with his wife, one son, and some friends made a trip to the Holy Land and other points near the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Constantinople, and Rome. He sang at meetings in each city that he visited. Sankey referred to this trip as one of the most delightful experiences of his life. Having sung his way into the hearts of millions in his own country, as well as abroad, Sankey continued conducting services of "Sacred Song and Story" for some time.

In 1899, Sankey again visited Great Britain, holding services of "Sacred Song and Story" in thirty cities and towns. This ambitious schedule resulted in the breakdown of his health. His poor health forced him to return to his home in New Castle for a brief interval, but even then he remained busy preparing his songbook Gospel Hymns Number Two with the assistance of his esteemed friend Mr. P. P. Bliss. He was stricken with glaucoma in 1903, which caused his eyesight to deteriorate and eventually fail. His health steadily declined from this point onward. Sankey entered the presence of the Lord at his home in Brooklyn, New York on 13 August 1908. A stained-glass Sankey memorial window occupies the south opening in the First Methodist Church in New Castle, which was his home church. The window illustrates the message of Sankey's famous song, The Ninety and Nine. Funeral services were conducted in the LaFayette Avenue Presbyterian Church and his body was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.


Blumhofer, Edith L. "Sankey, Ira David." In American National Biography. Vol. 19, Rousseau-Simmons. eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 267-8. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

The Ira D. Sankey Centenary: Proceedings of the Centenary Celebration of the Birth of Ira D. Sankey Together with Some Hitherto Unpublished Sankey Correspondence, by the Lawrence County Historical Society. New Castle, PA: Lawrence County Historical Society, 1941.

Ludwig, Charles. Sankey Still Sings. Anderson IN: Warner Press, 1947.

Minarik, Sharon. The Moody-Sankey Era's Gospel Hymnology Exemplified in Gospel Hymns Nos. 1-6. M. A. thesis, Concordia Teachers College, [1978].

Rothwell, Helen. Sankey: The Singer and His Song. Belfast: Ambassador Productions Ltd., 1996.

Sankey, Ira D. My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and of Sacred Songs and Solos. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, c1907.

Sankey's Life Timeline

1840, August 28
Born in Edinburg, Pennsylvania.

Converted at sixteen while attending revival meetings at King's Chapel.

Moved to New Castle where his father assumed presidency of the bank.
Elected as the Sunday School Superintendent of the First Methodist Church in New Castle, and leader of the choir.

Enlisted in the Twelfth Pennsylvania Regiment and sent to Maryland.

1863, September 9
Married Fanny V. Edwards, daughter of the Hon. John Edwards, who had been a member of his choir and a teacher in the Sunday school.

Became the secretary and later president of the New Castle YMCA.

Sent as a delegate to a YMCA convention in Indianapolis and where he met D.L. Moody for the first time.

1872, October
Moved to Chicago with his family.
Took up Moody's Chicago work.

1873, June
Conducted his first evangelistic tour of Great Britain.

1875, June
Held meetings in Ireland, Scotland, and England.

Set to music the poem The Ninety and Nine.

Visited the Holy Land and other points on the Mediterranean, including Egypt, Constantinople, and Rome.

Third extended mission to the British Isles.

Visited Great Britain, held services in thirty cities and towns.

Afflicted with glaucoma that led to blindness.

1908, August 13
Passed away at the age of sixty-seven.

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