Ira D Sankey: Gospel Roots - Remembering the Father of Gospel Music Part 1

Thursday 1st October 1992

Gospel music, far from being a new recording phenomena was a sales sensation in the era of frock coats and cylinder recordings. In this, the first part of a major article, Mel R Wilhoit plots the history of IRA D SANKEY.

Ira D. Sankey
Ira D. Sankey

Say the words "gospel music" to anyone in the music business and they will probably start thinking about some fairly specific musical styles, performers, or traditions. If they inhabit the realm of contemporary Christian music, they'll undoubtedly think in terms like Southern gospel, contemporary black gospel, traditional black gospel, or pop/rock influenced styles-all categories in CCM's annual Dove Awards. For those interested in the broader world of the Grammys, gospel music finds its identity in categories like Best Gospel Performance or Best Soul Gospel Performance.

Ironically, none of these categories describe the type of music that originally gave us the name gospel. In fact, if one of the earlier gospel songs were recorded in a style similar to its origin, it would likely find itself listed under Praise and Worship and Praise or Inspirational in the Dove Awards. Or somewhere near Easy Listening in the Grammys. But certainly not under Gospel. For an industry and a musical public that presently associates gospel music with styles related to Southern, black or contemporary sounds, it may come as no little surprise that gospel music originated in the context of Northern, urban, white revivalism of the nineteenth century. How this all came about-gospel music's heritage-is unknown to many and has been forgotten by others; but it is an exciting and important legacy that is well worth recalling and pondering.

It probably all started in a Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, at 6 a.m. on the morning of 26 June 1870. A delegate to the annual YMCA Convention being held in town slipped in late at an early morning prayer meeting and sat by the door. His goal was to hear the famous Dwight L. Moody. Moody was from Chicago and was a tireless builder of Sunday Schools and a fund-raiser for the Chicago branch of the Young Men's Christian Association. Moody also carried-on numerous other ministries which involved feeding the poor, finding jobs for the unemployed, and preaching the gospel.

The singing at the early meeting was, to say the least, drowsy. Thus when the tardy delegate heard the poor singing, he was not surprised when a friend seated nearby asked him to strike up something more lively if he got the chance. The result was a spirited rendition of "There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood." Almost magically the complexion of the whole meeting changed.

Moody was certainly eager to meet the young man who could so thoroughly enliven the atmosphere of a meeting just by his singing. After the meeting there was a procession of people lined up to meet the speaker. The line continued to shorten and finally the two men met. "Mr. Moody," said a friend, "I'd like you to meet Ira Sankey." Instead of the expected pleasantries of an introduction, Moody began a rapid-fire inquiry.

"Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?" A surprised Sankey replied that he was a Pennsylvanian, was married, had two children, and was a government employee. "You will have to give that up," Moody snapped back. Sankey stood in amazement at such a terse reply. "What for?" he queried. "To come to Chicago and help me in my work." "Impossible" protested Ira; he had a job and family. Moody would hear none of it." You must. I have been looking for you for the last eight years." The evangelist then explained that the greatest trouble he had in his religious meetings was with the music. He could not sing and had to depend wholly upon others for the music. Unfortunately, few musical assistants seemed to have much spiritual sensitivity, for about the time the preacher was ready to "pull the net" and ask for spiritual decisions, the song-leader would choose some wholly inappropriate song and destroy the spirit of the meeting. Moody had long since despaired of finding someone who sensed the Spirit of the Lord working in a meeting and knew how to integrate it with appropriate music. Sankey clearly understood Moody's dilemma, but it all seemed rather irrelevant for him.

Moody, a man who didn't know the meaning of no, asked Sankey to pray with him about the matter. Sankey consented out of politeness. Unconvinced, Sankey returned to his room; yet there was something very impressive about Moody.

The next day Sankey received a note from Moody asking him to meet on the street corner at six o'clock that evening. Out of curiosity or respect, Sankey complied. When Moody arrived he said nothing but went to a nearby store and asked permission to borrow a large box. He then moved it out into the street and requested Sankey to ascend it and sing something. A surprised Sankey obediently mounted the box and began "Am I A Soldier Of The Cross" began attracting a large crowd of factory workers on their way home from work. Moody then jumped up on the makeshift pulpit and spoke for nearly half an hour. The men stood silent and attentive; on completion he announced he could continue in the nearby Opera House and invited all to join the meeting. Again Sankey was requested to use his vocal abilities to focus the crowd's attention and, like some pied piper, he led the throng of tired and dirty workers marching down the street to "Shall We Gather At The River?"

The Opera House was packed, and Moody preached to a spiritually hungry audience about God's love and forgiveness until a delegate belonging to a scheduled evening session arrived. "Now we must close as the brethren of the convention wish to come in to discuss the question, "How to reach the masses." " Sankey was stunned. Here was a man who was actually reaching the masses while others simply talked about it. When Moody again brought up the question of Sankey's joining him, Ira promised to give it prayerful consideration.

Although Moody was a well-known Christian worker and popular speaker, Ira Sankey was an unknown commodity in the larger religious world. He had been born in Edinburg, Pennsylvania on 28 August 1840. His parents were David and Mary Sankey, highly respected folks in the western part of the state. Ira loved music and relished sitting by the great crackling fire in the Sankey home, as evenings were often spent singing the good old hymns of the church. Ira's father supplied a rich bass with other family members providing the remaining parts. By eight years of age, the young Sankey could read some music and knew by heart the parts to tunes such as "St. Martin's", "Belmont" and "Coronation".

Sankey's love of music also attracted him to church and Sunday School. Of the latter Ira recalled: "The very first recollection I have of anything pertaining to a holy life was in connection with a Mr. Frazer. I recall how he took me by the hand and led me with his own children to the Sunday school held in the old schoolhouse. I shall remember this to my dying day. He had a warm heart and the children all loved him. Much of the seed planted in that Sunday School came to fruition in Ira's 16th year while attending revival meetings at The King's Chapel near his home. There the young Sankey was converted.

The following year the Sankey family moved a short distance to New Castle where David Sankey became a bank president. Ira immediately joined the local Methodist Episcopal Church and soon found himself Sunday School director and leader of the choir. The latter position was particularly challenging because the church possessed no organ, as some thought it worldly. The hymns were pitched with a tuning fork thumped on the back of a hymnal, and the choir was not above quietly hurrying through the hymn before its commencement on soft syllables so as to ensure their proper parts. Happily for Sankey the church finally acquired an organ, and only one or two older members protested. Of these, one elderly gentleman was reported to have driven his wagon through the town the following day seated on a large keg of rum singing at the top of his voice, "A Change To Keep I Have". There was no more trouble about the organ.

For Sankey, his church experience proved to be an important training ground where he discovered his musical gifts and learned how to apply them in an effective way. He also received some formal music instruction; formal in terms of training available in the mid-nineteenth century. This consisted of his attending a musical convention led by William Bradbury in Farmingtown, Ohio. These sessions were probably 12-week terms organized by the music educator and composer George F. Root to afford thorough musical instruction, and especially to qualify teachers of music. Root was assisted by Lowell Mason and George Webb as well as Bradbury. These men also happened to be the most formative influences on American church music during the period. When Ira finally returned to New Castle his father complained, "I am afraid that boy will never amount to anything; all he does is to run about the country with a hymnbook under his arm." Whereupon a wise mother replied that she would rather see him with a hymnal under his arm than a whiskey bottle in his pocket.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Sankey served two short terms in the Union Army. He quickly gravitated towards other soldiers who loved music, and he organized a soldiers' chorus which sang for religious service. While stationed in Maryland, Sankey and his musical friends often sang in the homes of Southerners whose city was under Union control. "I remember with what astonishment the Southern people heard some of our soldier boys play the piano in their beautiful homes. The singing of some of the old-time home songs seemed to dispel all feeling of enmity. We were always treated with the utmost hospitality and kindness, and many friendships were formed that lasted long after the war was ended."

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