My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns and of Sacred Songs and Solos


I was born in the village of Eclinburg, on the Mahoning River in Western Pennsylvania, August 28, 1840.

The first hymn I remember having heard was from the lips of my beloved mother, when, as a child, she sang me to sleep with the strains of that sweet old hymn:

"Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber,
Holy angels guard thy bed."

As a boy, it was one of my chief joys to meet with other members of our family around the great log fire in the old homestead, and spend the long winter evenings singing with them the good old hymns and tunes of the church, which was the only music we had in those days. When at home, my father would frequently join us in these evenings of sacred song, singing a splendid bass, while other members of the family carried the other parts. In this way I learned to read music, and when I was about eight years old I could sing correctly such tunes as St. Martin's, Belmont, Coronation, etc.

The church to which I belonged was situated several miles from our home, but my fondness for singing led me to be a regular attendant. I received the usual school privileges which fell to the lot of boys and girls of those days. 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. It was not until some years after that I was converted, at the age of sixteen, while attending revival meetings at a church known as The King's Chapel, about three miles from my home, but my first impressions were received from that man when I was very young.

In 1857 our family removed to Newcastle, where my father assumed the presidency of the bank. Here I attended the high school, where every opportunity was given to study such of the higher branches as the student might have a taste for, and later I took a position in the bank. On arriving at Newcastle I joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. Soon I was elected superintendent of the Sunday-school and leader of the choir.

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 hymn-book 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, Sol, Mi, 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 the top of a large casket of rum, singing at the top of his voice:

"A charge to keep I have,” etc.

It was here that I began to make special use of my voice in song, and in this way, though unconsciously, I was making preparation for the work in which I was to spend my life. When about twenty years of age I went to Farmingtown, Ohio, to attend a musical convention, conducted by Mr. Bradbury. On my return home, my father said to mother: ”I am afraid that boy will never amount to anything; all he does is to run about the country with a hymn-book under his arm. ”Mother replied that she would rather see me with a hymn-book under my arm than with a whisky bottle in my pocket.

In the spring of 1860, on the call of President Lincoln for men to sustain the Government, I was among the first in Newcastle to have my name enrolled as a soldier. My company was sent to Maryland. Religious services were held in the camp, anJ I often led the singing. I soon found several other young men who could render the same service. In a short time the people around us also learned that there were some singers in the Union camp, and we were frequently invited out by families who had heard of the singing of the ”boys in blue."

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 until long after the war was ended. .1 organized a male choir in the company to which I belonged, and we would frequently be called upon to assist the chaplain in conducting the religious services of the camp.

At the expiration of my term as a soldier I did not re-enter the army, but returned to Newcastle to assist my father, who had been appointed by Abraham Lincoln as a collector of internal revenue.

In 1863, on the 9th of September, I married a member of my choir—Miss Fanny V. Edwards, a daughter of the Hon. John Edwards. She has been a blessing and a helpmate to me throughout my life and in all my work.

My services as a singer were utilized in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio for Sunday-school conventions and political gatherings. In 1867, when I was twenty-seven years old, a branch of the Young Men's Christian Association was organized at Newcastle, of which I was at that time elected secretary and later president. The first meetings were held in a small hired room. From that modest beginning, by the help of God, I was later enabled to give to the city a Young Men's Christian Association building, including gymnasium, library and bathrooms, in all costing more than $40,000, by means of money realized from the sale of ”Gospel Hymns.” Not far 'from this building, on Jefferson street, I bought a beautiful lot for my old church, on which to erect a new structure, and later I assisted Bishop Vincent to raise the necessary funds, so that the new church was dedicated without any debt. My father and mother were members of this church until they passed away.

In 1870, with two or three others, I was appointed a delegate to the International Convention of the Association, to be held at Indianapolis that year.

For several years I had read in the religious press about Mr. Moody, and I was therefore pleased when I learned that he would be at the convention, being a delegate from the Chicago Association. For a couple of days I was disappointed in neither seeing nor hearing him. At several of the annual conventions prior to this occasion, it had been the custom to select Moody as chairman, but now it was decided that some one else should occupy the chair, and Moody therefore took a seat among the other delegates on the floor. However, late on a Saturday afternoon, it was announced that Moody of Chicago would lead a six o'clock morning prayer-meeting in the Baptist Church. I was rather late, and therefore sat down near the door with a Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Robert McMillan, a delegate from my own county, who said to me,”Mr. Sankey, the singing here has been abominable; I wish you would start up something when that man stops praying, if he ever does. ”I promised to do so, and when opportunity offered I started the familiar hymn, ”There is a fountain filled with blood.” The congregation joined heartily and a brighter aspect seemed to be given to the meeting.

At the conclusion of the meeting Mr. McMillan said to me: ”Let me introduce you to Mr. Moody. ”We joined the little procession of persons who were going up to shake hands with him, and thus I met for the first time the man with whom, in the providence of God, I was to be associated for the remainder of his life, or nearly thirty years.

Moody's first words to me, after my introduction, were, ”Where are you from? Are you married? What is your business?” Upon telling him that I lived in Pennsylvania, was married, had two children, and was in the government employ, he said abruptly, ”You will have to give that up."

I stood amazed, at a loss to understand why the man told me that I would have to give up what I considered a good position. ”What for?” I exclaimed.

"To come to Chicago and help me in my work, ”was the answer;

When I told him that I could not leave my business, he retorted, ”You must; I have been looking for you for the last eight years."

I answered that I would think the matter over; but as yet I had no thought of giving up my position. He told me about his religious work in Chicago, and closed by saying that the greatest trouble in connection with his meetings was the matter of the singing. He said he could not sing himself, and therefore had to depend upon all kinds of people to lead his service of song, and that sometimes when he had talked to a crowd of people, and was about to ”pull the net,” some one would strike up a long meter hymn to a short meter tune, and thereby upset the whole meeting. Mr. Moody then asked me if I would go with him and pray over the matter, and to this I consented —out of politeness. After the prayer we parted, and I returned to my room, much impressed by Mr. Moody's prayer, but still undecided.

The next day I received a card from Mr. Moody asking if I would meet him on a certain street corner that evening at six o'clock. At that hour I was at the place named, with a few of my friends. In a few minutes Moody came along.

Without stopping to speak, he passed on into a store near by, and asked permission to use a large store-box. The permission was granted; he rolled the box into the street, and, calling me aside, asked me to get up on the box and sing something.

"Am I a soldier of the cross?” soon gathered a considerable crowd. After the song, Mr. Moody climbed up on the box and began to talk. The workingmen were just going home from the mills and the factories, and in a short time a very large crowd had gathered. The people stood spellbound as the words fell from Moody's lips with wonderful force and rapidity. When he had spoken for some twenty-five minutes he announced that the meeting would be continued at the Opera House, and invited the people to accompany us there. He asked me to lead the way and with my friends sing some familiar hymn. This we did, singing as we marched down the street, ”Shall we gather at the river.”The men with the dinner pails followed closely on our heels instead of going home, so completely were they carried away by the sermon from the store-box.

The Opera House was packed to the doors, and Moody first saw that all the workingmen were seated before he ascended to the platform to speak. His second address was as captivating as the one delivered on the street corner, and it was not until the delegates had arrived for the evening session of the convention that Mr. Moody closed the meeting, saying, ”Now we must close, as the brethren of the convention wish to come in to discuss the question, 'How to reach the masses.' “Here was a man who could successfully reach the masses while others were talking about it.

When Mr. Moody again brought up the question of our going into the work together, I was still undecided. After a delay of over six months, and much urging on Mr. Moody's part, I consented to spend a week with him.

I arrived in Chicago one bright morning about daylight, and after a hasty breakfast proceeded at once to Mr. Moody's home, on the north side of the city. Immediately on entering the house, and without any preliminaries or introductions to such members of his family as were present, he asked me if I would not sit down at the organ and lead the singing for the family devotions. After the services were over and I had been introduced to his family, he said: ”I am going to spend the day in visiting a lot of sick people, and I want you to go with me and sing for them. ”In the first home we visited we found a sick mother with a very large family, who were all very glad to see Mr. Moody, who at once took a seat by the bedside, saying: ”I am going to read a few words from the Bible, but first I want my friend, Sankey, to sing a little hymn for you. ”I sang ”Scatter Seeds of Kindness, ”which was quite popular in those days. This hymn, which was the first one I sang for Moody, on joining him in Chicago, in 1871, was the last one I sang for him, twenty-eight years later. This was at the last public meeting we held together, which was in Brooklyn, in the church of the Rev. Richard M. Storrs, D. D., in September, 1899.

Besides visiting the sick, we spent the week in holding a number of meetings in the Illinois Street Church, of which Moody was the founder and leader, noon prayer-meetings in the business part of the city, some evangelistic services in different churches, and concluded the week with a mass meeting in Farwell Hall. This meeting he opened with a congregational hymn, and while it was being sung, he said to me: ”I am going to speak on 'The Prodigal Son,' and I want you to sing one of the songs I heard you sing at Indianapolis, 'Come home, O prodigal child.' “I replied: ”But I have no organ with which to accompany myself. ”Pointing his finger over his shoulder at the great three thousand dollar organ at the rear of the platform, he said: ”Isn't that enough for you? ”I replied that it was too large, and too far away, and that if I used it, I would have to turn my back to the audience while singing, and that the song so rendered would not amount to anything, nor did I think that the German gentleman who had been playing the organ could accompany me in the way in which I should like to render the hymn. Moody then said: ”Give him a book, and tell him how you want it played. ”This I did. Later on when Moody suddenly finished his address, which was one of great power, he looked at me and said: ”Mr. Sankey will now sing a solo for us, and let it be perfectly still while he sings. ”I arose quickly, and turned around to indicate to the organist that I was ready, but to my horror, he had not yet returned from the quiet smoke which he was in the habit of enjoying in a back room while Moody was preaching. I stepped to the front of the platform and sang the song as best I could without any musical accompaniment. I have always remembered that song, as being the first sacred solo sung by me in one of Mr. Moody's large evangelistic meetings.

As I was about to leave the city for my home the next morning, Mr. Moody said: ”You see that I was right; your singing has been very helpful in all the meetings, and I am sure you ought to come to Chicago at once, and give up your business."