May 31, 2024

Ira Sankey


Their evangelistic revivals were well-known in 19th-century America. One Chicago flyer said it well, “Come hear Dwight L. Moody preach the gospel and Ira D. Sankey sing the gospel.” On paper, they seemed an odd match. Moody was brash and outspoken; Sankey (1840-1908) was reserved and accommodating. How did they maintain a close working relationship for thirty years? In Sankey’s words, “they settled their differences in prayer.” Moody and Sankey took an extended ministry tour of England, Ireland, and Scotland in the mid-1870s. As they boarded a train in Scotland, Sankey purchased a local paper (for a penny!), hoping to read news from home. He came across a poem that piqued his interest, “The Lost Sheep,” the author identified only as “Bessie.” The poem centered on Jesus’ parable about a shepherd who left his flock of 99 sheep in search of one lost sheep. He read the poem to Moody who was absorbed in reading a letter from home and ignored him. Sankey thought the poem would make a great evangelistic hymn if only it had a tune and filed it in his musical scrapbook. The following evening, Moody preached on Jesus as the Good Shepherd. After finishing, he turned to Sankey and said, “Have you a solo appropriate for the subject with which to close the service?” Sankey had nothing suitable in mind. As Sankey recalled years later, “I seemed to hear a voice saying, ‘Sing the hymn you found on the train.’ But I thought it was impossible since no music had ever been written for the hymn.” When the idea wouldn’t leave him, he retrieved the newspaper clipping, placed it on the organ, committed it in prayer, and started playing as the tune came to him. After he finished, Moody exclaimed, “Sankey, where did you get that hymn? I never heard the likes of it in my life.” Present in the congregation that evening was the sister of the woman who had originally composed the poem. She identified her late sister “Bessie” to Sankey by her full name, Elizabeth Clephane. Although the song, “The Ninety and Nine” is no longer commonly sung, it was a crowd favorite in those days. When Sankey rehearsed the song with a choir preparing to lead worship in Boston a few years later, he accompanied it with the following prayer for those who have lost their way:

Our heavenly Father, in the name of the Lord Jesus we come to thee at this moment, asking that thy blessing may rest upon our singing…Bless the message of thy love as found in these songs. Bless the singers who have come here, and will come day after day, to lift voices of praise to thee. As in days of old, when singers were wont to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, do meet with thy people in this temple dedicated to thy service. And our Father, shall we not ask that we may even see prodigals being brought home by the Good Shepherd, that having wandered far away from thee, they will hear thy voice, and say, ‘I will arise and go to my Father.’ Lord Jesus, bless us now in all that we shall do here, and we will give thee the praise forevermore. Amen.
Ira D. Sankey, My Life and the Story of Gospel Hymns.
Wayne Porter, “The Life of Ira D. Sankey”

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.