The service in the Free Church Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, on May 21, 1874, had centered on the theme of “The Good Shepherd.” Messages by Dwight L. Moody, Horatius Bonar, and others emphasizing the shepherd work of Christ had greatly impressed a responsive audience.

Then Moody turned to his associate, Ira D. Sankey. “Have you a solo appropriate for this subject, to close the meeting with?”

Sankey felt impelled to use a poem by Elizabeth C. Clephane that he had clipped from a paper just the day before on the train, though that would mean composing music, playing, and singing simultaneously.

“Placing the little newspaper slip on the organ in front of me,” he said afterwards, “I lifted my heart in prayer, asking God to help me to sing so that the people might hear and understand. Laying my hands upon the organ, I struck the key of A flat and began to sing:

There were ninety and nine that safely lay

In the shelter of the fold,

But one was out on the hills away

Far off from the gates of gold

Away on the mountains wild and bare,

Away from the tender Shepherd’s care,

Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

“After the first verse I was glad that I had got through, but overwhelmed with fear that the tune for the next verse would be greatly different from the first.” But he continued to look to the Lord, who “gave me again the same tune for all the remaining verses. As the singing ceased, a great sigh seemed to go up from the meeting, and I knew that the song had reached the hearts of my Scotch audience.” Years later he recalled, “Note by note the tune was given, which has not changed from that day to this.…”

Thus was born one of the most effective gospel songs of all time. Perhaps it is the most famous of Sankey’s more than eighty compositions. Stories about “The Ninety and Nine” are numerous. One concerns a service in 1875 when, because of overflowing crowds, Moody preached outside the Northfield (Massachusetts) Congregational Church. Sankey then sang this song for the first time in the United States. A Mr. Caldwell, seated on his porch across the Connecticut River, heard it, was brought under conviction, and was saved soon afterward. Some years later, at the laying of the cornerstone of the new Congregational Church building, Sankey again sang “The Ninety and Nine.” Mr. Caldwell, who now lived near the church, lay dying. He called his wife to open the south window, because he “thought he heard singing.” Together they listened to the song that had been used to lead him to Christ, and soon after he died.

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“The Ninety and Nine” helped link and publicize the names of Moody and Sankey throughout the English-speaking world. For nearly thirty years they were inseparable, though Sankey’s failing health curtailed his ministry during the last few years.

It was a far cry from Edinburg, Pennsylvania, to Edinburgh, Scotland. Sankey was born in that small western Pennsylvania village in 1840, and at the age of fifteen was converted during revival services. Later the family settled in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Here young Ira joined the Methodist Episcopal Church and became Sunday school superintendent as well as president of the local YMCA.

Brought up in a musical family, he had early learned to read music and was soon exercising his talent. He led the church choir and sang at Sunday school conventions and political gatherings. After serving in the Civil War, Sankey returned to New Castle to take a place as assistant to his father, who was collector of internal revenue, and presumably to lead a quiet life in business and Christian service.

But that was reckoning without the whirlwind of the West, D. L. Moody.

When Sankey journeyed to Indianapolis in 1870 for the YMCA convention, he had no idea that he was soon to begin a career of world prominence. According to the familiar story, it was in Indianapolis that D. L. Moody, the dynamic young Sunday school and city mission worker from Chicago, first met Sankey and heard him sing. Immediately Moody accosted him with a series of rapid questions about his family and business, climaxed by the abrupt order, “You’ll have to give that up.”

Amazed, Sankey asked, “What for?”

“To come to Chicago and help me in my work.”

Further discussion culminated in Sankey’s perhaps half-hearted promise to pray about the matter. But Moody was irresistible, and as Sankey later put it, “It took him only six months to pray me out of business.” A trial period in Chicago clinched the matter. Sankey resigned his Pennsylvania position and joined Moody.

In 1873 the two sailed for the British Isles without fame or fanfare, and with only a vague “invitation.” At York, England, a bare handful attended the first service. The number grew, but with no pronounced results at first. Yet from this small beginning grew one of the greatest revivals of all.

Within two years Moody and Sankey were preaching to multitudes in the British Isles and were seeing great numbers of conversions, consecrations, and other evidences of blessing. Churches, YMCA’s, missions, and similar organizations sprang up or were revitalized. The total attendance at London, 2,530,000, stands as the record for a single city campaign, except for Billy Graham’s 1955 Glasgow crusade. J. C. Pollock calls the estimated 20,000 nightly attendance at Agricultural Hall “unprecedented; to the England of 1875, fantastic.”

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The prayers, attendance, and support of men like F. B. Meyer, the Rt. Hon. W. E. Gladstone, and many others were significant factors in the success of the meetings. So also was the singing of Ira D. Sankey.

Early in this campaign, a tremendous demand arose for copies of the sacred songs, especially the solos, used by Sankey. At first he would lend his notebook to others, but this was highly unsatisfactory; it could never make all the rounds, and sometimes it failed to get back to its owner on time. Next he had cards printed, but the supply was exhausted immediately.

Then R. C. Morgan, editor of the Christian, visited the meetings to gather material for his paper. He offered to prepare a small paperbound hymnbook, and thus Sacred Songs and Solos was born. The first edition of 500 copies at sixpence each sold out within twenty-four hours. After later printings, the popular volume was advertised and sold not only in bookstores but even at grocery and dry goods stores.

In The Golden Multitudes, the late Frank Luther Mott says, “Perhaps the best selling song book of modern times was Ira D. Sankey’s Sacred Songs, for which the compiler claimed a distribution of 50 million copies the world over.” This of course included many inexpensive paper-bound words-only editions.

But if the phenomenal distribution of the book helped publicize the Moody-Sankey meetings, it also furnished ammunition for the critics who imagined the evangelists amassing riches from royalties and even from the sale of organs. The fact is, however, that neither Moody nor Sankey profited personally. Wisely foreseeing this very charge, they set up a trust headed by William E. Dodge, Jr., New York businessman and philanthropist, to handle hymnbook royalties. The first disbursement from the fund helped complete the Chicago Avenue (now Moody Memorial) Church, an outgrowth of D. L. Moody’s early Sunday school work in Chicago. Later, funds went to other organizations, especially the Northfield and Mount Hermon Schools, which Moody also founded. In escorting visitors around the schools, Moody would point to a building and declare, “Sankey sang that one up.” At Moody’s death in 1899, the total hymnbook royalties were estimated at $1,250,000.

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Sankey came in for criticism on other scores. Some Scottish Christians objected at first to his small reed organ as a “kist o’ whistles”; others complained that “solo singing is not worship.” In this country Walt Whitman called Sankey “vociferous and voiceless”—and many other things. Vanity Fair and other periodicals lampooned the bulky 220-pound figure with the magnificent muttonchop whiskers.

What did Ira D. Sankey’s singing sound like? Was it like that of George Beverly Shea or other famous evangelistic soloists today? It is difficult to tell, even if one carefully listens to all known recordings of Sankey’s voice. Recording facilities in that day were so primitive by today’s standards that comparisons are almost impossible. The voice is perhaps best described as an unexceptional “strong baritone of moderate compass.” He had little or no professional voice training. Yet unbiased critics agree on his ability to move audiences profoundly. Generally he accompanied himself on a small reed organ, singing simply but with careful enunciation and much feeling and expression.

A dramatic incident occurred in Agricultural Hall, London, during the great 1875 campaign. After his sermon, Moody asked the audience to bow while Sankey sang the powerful invitational hymn, “Almost Persuaded.” Just before the last word of the final stanza, the singer paused and then prayed aloud, “Oh God, grant that no one in this building tonight will be—lost.” The stillness of death prevailed while many made decisions for Christ.

Sankey was not only a singer but a personal worker as well. A drunkard in Scotland had been greatly affected by hearing “The Ninety and Nine.” After the service Sankey dealt with him and found that he was the lost sheep of his family and wanted to stop drinking. After counseling and prayer, the man trusted Christ. “He was said,” Sankey recalled, “to have been one of the most wicked men of his town, and had given the police more trouble than any other man there, but he became a humble follower of Christ.”

During a Torrey-Alexander meeting in Sheffield, England, about 1905, a man gave this testimony: “I found Christ in this hall in 1882, when Moody and Sankey were preaching the Gospel; I was brought face to face with God, and in the after-meeting Mr. Sankey led me to Christ, and I am happy in Him today.” Alexander added, “As we have gone around the world we have found that the best workers, as a general rule, are either workers or converts of the Moody and Sankey meetings.”

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Of course, not all interviews were so successful. During the Hartford, Connecticut, meetings, Sankey dealt with P. T. Barnum, the famous showman, who observed, “Mr. Sankey, you go on singing ‘The Ninety and Nine’ and when you get that lost sheep in the fold we will all be saved.” Sankey later learned that Barnum was a universalist.

But undoubtedly Sankey’s most lasting contribution to the cause of Christ was his writing. He composed some eighty numbers and compiled about ten hymn-books and other volumes. Sacred Songs and Solos is still widely used today, though it is not now published in the United States. Besides “The Ninety and Nine,” Sankey’s best-known hymns include “Hiding in Thee,” “Faith Is the Victory,” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” “Under His Wings,” and “Trusting Jesus, That Is All.”

In his later years, Sankey’s gradually failing health curtailed his ministry, and Moody used D. B. Towner, George C. Stebbins, and other musicians increasingly. As J. C. Pollock says, “Sankey in his prime had lasted entire campaigns with few breaks, but now Moody would wear out two or three singers on a tour. Moreover, none had that extraordinary, indefinable quality which could still cause a hearer to exclaim, ‘I would rather hear Sankey with his worn-out voice than the greatest prima donna in the world.’ ”

Not only his voice failed. For his last five years Sankey was completely blind, confined to the seclusion of his home in Brooklyn, only a shadow of the giant who had helped stir two continents for God.

Richard Ellsworth Day, in Bush Aglow, tells poignantly of a ray of light that brightened Sankey’s life one day in 1907 when Dr. F. B. Meyer visited him: “They talked over the golden days agone, when D. L. was with them.… As Meyer arose to go, he led Sankey over to the little melodeon and whispered, ‘Sing again, beloved.’

“The shrunken fingers touched the yellowed keys; the old voice warmed slowly into something like its ancient beauty. And Meyer sobbed like a child when the faithful words filled the room: ‘There’ll be no dark valley when Jesus comes!’ ”

Life on earth ended for Ira D. Sankey on August 13, 1908. But what a time of rejoicing there will be when the words of one of his own favorite songs, “There’ll Be No Dark Valley,” are gloriously fulfilled.


From the recalcitrant marble his sure hand

Shaped this live image: See young David stand

Armed for the final conflict, poised to fling

That fateful pebble from the shepherd’s sling

Hung over his strong shoulder: See his brow

Prayer-lifted facing old Goliath now

The foe of ages to be overthrown.…

Here is the trust of Israel set in stone.


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