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Sankey Pioneer of Gospel Songs

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Archives / 1940 / March



Sankey Pioneer of Gospel Songs

J.L. McConaughey

By J. L. McCONALIGHEY, President of the Oklahoma Conference


In 1873 there came on the scene of religious-revival action, the great preacher Moody and his singing associate, Ira D. Sankey, who introduced and made popular what be­came known as the "singing of the gospel." Sankey completely revolutionized the music of the church with the introduction of the gospel song. He was the pioneer of what was then a peculiar style of popular hymn. Theodore Cuyler says of him in the intro­duction to Sankey's autobiography:

"If ever a man was raised and endowed for a special work by our divine Master, that man was Ira D. Sankey. His work has been of a twofold character. Before his day, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs had always been an important part of the services of religious worship throughout Chris­tendom. But he introduced a peculiar style of popular hymns which are calculated to awaken the careless, to melt the hardened, and to guide inquir­ing souls to the Lord Jesus Christ. In the next place, he sang these powerful revival hymns himself, and became as effective a preacher of the gospel of salvation by song as his associate, Dwight L. Moody, was by sermon. The multitudes who heard his rich, inspiring voice in 'The Ninety and Nine,' 'Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By,' and 'When the Mists Have Rolled Away,' will testify to the prodigious power with which the Holy Spirit gave him utterance. While he has many successors, he was the pioneer."—"My Life and the Story of Gos­pel Hymns," by Ira D. Sankey, p. tit.

Many times during the early days of the Moody-Sankey revivals, as they entered a new community or country to launch an evan­gelistic campaign, the church people would come, curious to see and hear the singing Sankey. Pedaling his small cabinet organ, he would sing out in his rich, melodious voice, and completely captivate his audience with some grand gospel invitational hymn. Dur­ing those times it was often considered sac­rilege to have an organ or other musical in­strument in the house of worship, or to sing other than psalms. When he was a young man about eighteen years of age, before he ever met Mr. Moody, young Sankey was elected leader of the choir in the Methodist church of which he was a member. In his memoirs he gives this vivid picture of the church music of those days:

"When I first took charge of the singing, it was thought by many of the church members that the use of an organ, or any kind of musical instrument to accompany the voices of the singers, was wicked and worldly. The twanging of an old tuning fork on the back of a hymnbook was not objected to, nor the running of the whole gamut in subdued voice to find the proper key, nor the choir trying to get the proper note to their respective parts in the never-to-be-forgotten 'Do, mi, so!, ml, do,' before beginning the hymn. For several years we kept on in this way, but by and by we found that the ma­jority were in favor of having an organ in the choir. I shall never forget the day on which the organ was first introduced. I had the honor of presiding at the instrument, and I remember well how carefully I played the opening piece. Only one or two of the old members left the church during the singing. It was reported that an old man who left the church on account of the intro­duction of the organ, was seen on his dray the next day, driving through the main street of the town, seated on top of a large casket of rum, singing at the top of his voice: 'A charge to keep I have,' etc."—/d., pp.

Sankey's Songs Called "Human Hymns"

It was under such circumstances that San­key began to make special use of his voice in song, and unconsciously in this way he was making preparation for the work in which he was to spend his life. Strict church people, accustomed only to the unaccompanied old­psalm-singing type of church music, called Sankey's songs "human hymns." Especially in Scotland did the prejudice against the organ and the "human hymns" have to be tactfully broken down. Speaking of one of the earlier meetings, Sankey said:

"Much had been said and written in Scotland against the use of 'human hymns' in public worship, and even more had been uttered against the employ­ment of the `kist o' whistles,' the term by which they designated the small cabinet organ I employed as an accompaniment to my voice. A goodly num­ber of ministers and prominent laymen were pres­ent. After the opening prayer I asked all to join in singing a portion Of the one hundredth psalm. To this they responded with a will as it was safe and common ground for all denominations, and no questions were raised as to Mr. Rouse having in­troduced anything 'human' into David's version as found in the Bible. This was followed by reading the Scriptures and prayer.

"The service having been thus opened in regular order, we now faced the problem of 'singing the gospel,' a term first devised and used by the Rever­end Arthur A. Rees, of Sunderland, England, some months before in advertising our meetings in that city, and since then much discussed in Scotland. The song selected for my first solo was 'Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By.' The intense silence that pervaded that great audience during the singing of this song at once assured me that even 'human hymns,' sung in a prayerful spirit, were indeed likely to be used of God to arrest attention and convey gospel truth to the hearts of men in bonny Scotland, even as they had in other places."—/d., pp. 63-65.

At the conclusion of this service, Sankey was requested to sing another solo. He con­tinues:

"Selecting 'Hold the Fort,' then comparatively new in Edinburgh, the audience was requested to join in singing the chorus, 'Hold the fort, for I am coming,' which they did with such heartiness and such power that I was further convinced that gospel songs would prove as useful and acceptable to the masses in Edinburgh as they had in the cities of York and Newcastle in England."—Id., p. 65.

When Mr. Moody and Mr. Sankey went to England for their first evangelistic campaign in that country, they found a type of hymn being used in the churches which was entirely different from what they had been used to, and much out of keeping with the method of campaign they were using. It was necessary to provide a book of their own hymns. They had difficulty in finding a publisher who would risk publication of such a songbook; so Mr. Moody advanced a hundred dollars, prac­tically all the money he had at the time, and they published a sixteen-page pamphlet of words and music which had been compiled by Mr. Sankey. This was followed by a "words only" edition a little later. The supply of these song sheafs was quickly exhausted, and a progressive publisher, seeing the grow­ing popularity of the Sankey songs, agreed to publish a songbook for them, and pay a liberal royalty.

Moody and Sankey were so engrossed in their work that for some time no attention was paid to the matter of royalties. They had been hoping that perhaps the royalties from the sale of the books might help meet the expenses of their campaign. At the close of their London campaign it was found that the royalties amounted to thirty thousand dollars. They offered the entire amount to the gospel workers in England for Christian work. This was refused, and Moody finally was persuaded to use it for the completion of the building of his new Chicago church, which had been started after the great fire, and which became known as "Moody's Church." It has been estimated that the amount of royalties from the various editions of the songbooks in America alone exceeded a million dollars, not one dollar of which found its way into the pockets of either Moody or Sankey. It has all been used in the erection of churches and Christian schools, for the benefit of Y.M.C.A.'s, etc.

It is said that at one time Sankey's scrap­book contained over twelve hundred songs. Among the hundreds of songs which he used to accomplish such far-reaching results in soul winning, and which are today valued gems in the music of the church, we would mention: "Jesus of Nazareth Passeth By," one of his own great favorites; Fanny Cros­by's great song, "Saved by Grace ;" and "Hold the Fort," by P. P. Bliss, soon to be sung around the world. Other popular numbers were, "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning," "It Is Well With My Soul," and "There'll Be No Dark Valley When Jesus Comes," a great favorite during the closing years of his work. Of his own musical compositions, "The Ninety and Nine" stands at the top, and per­haps was the most frequently and the most effectively used of all the many songs he sang. Running a close second was Sankey's rendering of "When the Mists Have Rolled in Splendor From the Beauty of the Hills."

Some of the great gospel songs of the church, introduced and popularized by Sankey, live today to brighten the hearts and lives of men and women everywhere, and to help lighten the burdens and cares of the soul. Eternity alone will reveal the great good done by the Moody-Sankey combination, and the far-reaching soul-winning results of the gos­pel in song down through the years that have followed since Sankey first began "singing the gospel."

Difference Between a Hymn and a Gospel Song

This definition will not apply in every instance, but, as a general rule, the hymn is addressed to God in prayer, praise, adoration, or worship. The gospel song is addressed to people, presenting some phase of God's plan of salvation as outlined in the gospel, with admonition, warning, testimony, and expressions of joy because of salvation. With this definition before us, there should be no controversy as to the use of hymns and gospel songs. We can readily see that there is a great need for both.—Homer Rodeheaver.

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