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


When arriving home, I consulted my pastor, rather hoping that he would advise me not to go, but when he, as well as all my friends, was of the opinion that it was my plain duty to go, I sent my resignation to Mr. Hugh McCullough, at that time Secretary of the Treasury, and the position which I had held was, at my request, given to a ”bucktail” soldier who had escaped from Libby Prison.

We thus commenced work together in Chicago in the early part of 1871, singing and praying with the sick, speaking and singing at the daily noon prayer-meetings, and other work, until Mr. Moody's church was destroyed in the Chicago fire.

Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, we were holding a meeting in Farwell Hall, which was crowded to the doors. At the close of his address Mr. Moody asked me to sing a solo, and standing by the great organ at the rear of the platform I began the old, familiar hymn, ”To-day the Saviour calls. ”By the time I had reached the third verse,

"To-day the Saviour calls:
For refuge fly;
The storm of justice falls,
And death is nigh,"

my voice was drowned by the loud noise of the fire engines rushing past the hall, and the tolling of bells, among which we could hear, ever and anon, the deep, sullen tones of the great city bell, in the steeple of the old court-house close at hand, ringing out a general alarm.

Tremendous confusion was heard in the streets, and Mr. Moody decided to close the meeting at once, for the audience was becoming restless and alarmed. As the people dispersed, I went with Mr. Moody down the small back stairway leading into the old Arcade Court, and from our position there we watched the reflection of the fire, half a mile away, on the west side of the city, as it cast its ominous glare against the sky. After a few moments we separated, I to go over the river to where the fire was raging, and he to his home on the North Side. We did not meet again for more than two months.

On reaching the scene of the fire I found a whole block of small frame buildings burning fiercely, and I assisted in tearing down some board fences, to try to keep the fire from spreading to the adjoining territory. While thus engaged, the wind from the southwest had risen almost to a hurricane, and the flying embers from the falling buildings were quickly caught up and carried high upon the roofs of the houses adjoining, which were soon in flames. Thus the fire spread from building to building, and from block to block, until it seemed evident that the city was doomed. All this time the fire was moving towards Farwell Hall and the business center of the city.

I now gave up the fight, and made haste to re-cross the river, hurrying back to my quarters—my living room and office—in the Farwell Hall Building. The fire followed so rapidly that several times I had to shake the falling embers from my coat. Arriving at the hall, I gathered up a number of belongings which I especially wished to save, and, placing them close to the door of my office, went out to find a conveyance so as to transfer them to a place of safety. It was now between one and two o'clock in the morning, and not a carriage or truck could be found.

While still looking for a conveyance I saw in the distance, coming up Clark Street, a horse attached to an express wagon, running at full speed, without a driver, and ten or fifteen men running after it trying to capture the animal. I made a dash for the flying steed, but in turning from one street into another he slipped and fell, and in a moment a crowd of men were on top of him, each claiming the right of possession. Not caring to share in the contest, I returned to the hall, and commenced the task of carrying my effects toward Lake Michigan, half a mile distant.

On the way to the lake I passed the present location of the Palmer House, then being erected, the foundation of which had only been built to the level of the street. Believing that the rooms and underground passages would afford a temporary place of security for some of my things, I walked on a plank down into the cellar, and hid two large valises in the darkest corner I could find. As yet, only a few people were moving out of their homes in this section of the city, and, as I noticed the seeming indifference of those who had come to the windows of their houses, I called out to them to escape for their lives, as the city was doomed to destruction. Some became alarmed; others only laughed.

I returned to the hall for another load of my belongings, and after securing all I could carry, started in a more direct route for the lake, the streets being lighted up by the glare of the oncoming conflagration. After getting about half-way to the shore, I stopped and deposited my burden on the front steps of a fine residence I was passing, thinking I would soon return and find them there. Again, for the third time, I went back to my rooms, and, gathering up a few more articles, started for the stone steps. I found, however, on reaching the house, that the things I had left there were covered several feet deep with other people's belongings, and I never saw them again.

By this time the people were fully awake, rushing about the street, or anxiously looking out of their windows and from the tops of their houses in the direction of the fire. I could not help thinking of the Bible story of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain in the long ago, as many still made light of those who said the city would be destroyed. The air was filled with flying sparks of fire, resembling a spring snowstorm, when the sky is filled with huge, falling flakes.

As I pressed on, two men carrying a sick man on a stretcher overtook me. After passing a short distance ahead, they stopped and laid him by the side of the street, as the invalid, being quite sure the city would not be destroyed, did not wish to be carried farther. As soon as the carriers had been paid off and discharged I employed them to assist me in carrying my effects to the lakeside; but before we reached our destination, in looking southward, they saw that the fire was sweeping through the southeastern section of the city, where they lived. Dropping my goods in the middle of the street, and without waiting for compensation, they rushed away to secure their own homes.

Again I secured help, and at last reached the lake, where I deposited my trunks and possessions close by the edge of the water, with the thought that if the flames came to the edge of the lake I would walk into the water and be saved from the heat. Remembering my first attempt at carrying my goods away from Farwell Hall, I returned to the Palmer House block, to secure, if possible, my first cargo, very much fearing that the things would not be there when I reached the place, as I thought some night wanderer might have noticed my leaving them and appropriated them to his own use. Much to my joy, I-found them still there, and carried them away to the lake.

By this time I was greatly exhausted, and almost famished for want of water, that along the shore not being fit to drink. I asked another refugee, who was in like case with myself, watching his little store of precious things, if he would look out for mine while I returned into the city to get some water to drink. The man consenting, I went back to Wabash Avenue, one of the finest residential streets in the city, and, entering one of the large houses, asked if I might have some water. I was told to go into the rear of the building and get all I wished. I found a faucet, but, on attempting to draw water, air rushed out instead. This was my first intimation that the water works, two miles to the northward, had been destroyed. A few minutes later I heard a terrific explosion, which seemed to shake the city, and was told that the city gas works had blown up.

Things began to look very desperate—no water, no light in the houses, and the city in flames! I made my way back again to the lake and, wrapping myself in a great overcoat, lay down behind one of the large trunks which I had saved. Thus sheltered from the wind, I slept for an hour. On awaking I could hear the rush and roar of the fire coming nearer and nearer. The sun, slowly rising out of the waters of the lake, seemed like a red ball of fire. The wind had not fallen, and huge waves were breaking on the shore at my feet.

I now felt that I must have water to drink, and, after wandering along the shore for some distance, found some small rowboats, and asked a man near by, who seemed to be their owner, if I might have one to go out into the lake for fresh water. ”Yes,” he said;” if you can manage the boat you can have it, as we are not likely to have much more boating in this section for some time to come. ”So I took possession of one, and rowed down to where my goods were deposited. Rolling them on board, I made my way out into the lake, passing through the piling on which the railway was built, in front of the city. After getting my boat through the piling, I rowed out far enough to find fresh water. Then, tying my boat to some timbers that were being used for the erection of i a new breakwater, I climbed up on the pile of lumber / and for several hours watched the destruction of the city. Every few minutes a loud explosion was heard. I afterwards learned that these were caused by the blowing up of buildings—by order of General Sheridan, who was in the city at the time—so as to form a barrier against the fire and prevent its spreading to the southward.

It was interesting to watch the tramps and thieves carrying away on their backs large bales of silk and satin goods which they had taken from the burning stores in the wholesale district. Most of them followed the railway track southward, not knowing that at the place where the track reached the land a company of fire insurance agents were waiting with open arms to relieve them of their burdens.

The day wore away, but the city was still burning, and, as the sun was sinking in the west, a song came into my mind which I had been singing a few days before in Mr. Moody's large Sunday-school on the North Side, and I sang it through as I sat there, with the waves beating about me. The first verse was as follows:

"Dark is the night, and cold the wind is blowing,
Nearer and nearer comes the breakers' roar;
Where shall I go, or whither fly for refuge?
Hide me, my Father, till the storm is o'er.”

I finally determined to get back to land, but was not aware of the fact that the riding of my boat upon the waves had almost sawn asunder the line with which it was attached to the timber. As I jumped into the boat the line broke, and I was swept out into the lake, the waves sweeping over my little craft. For a moment I was in real danger of being lost, but I soon had the boat under control, and, after a few moments of hard work, reached the shore in safety.

I then secured a drayman, who for the sum of ten dollars agreed to carry me and my effects to the unburned end of the Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway if he could find it. He succeeded. I checked my goods for my home in the East, secured some refreshments at a near-by restaurant, and went back into the burnt district. Farwell Hall was gone, and every building in that part of the city had disappeared. The paved streets, covered with hot bricks and long coils of burnt and twisted telegraph wire, told something of the awful story. Most of the substance of these great buildings had actually been carried away by the hot air into the water of Lake Michigan.

After seeing something of the fearful destruction wrought by the conflagration, I made my way through the heated streets to the railway, and took an outgoing train for my home in Pennsylvania. As we left the city it seemed as though the whole country was on fire; in all directions we could see huge banks of flame sweeping across the prairies, and the air was filled to suffocation with smoke.

I was soon able to telegraph home of my safety and speedy return. It seemed as though this would end my work in Chicago, but two months later Mr. Moody telegraphed me to return and help him in the new temporary ”Tabernacle,” which had by that time been erected. On my return to Chicago I learned that Mr. Moody, after reaching his home on the North Side, had aroused his sleeping neighbors, assisted men and women into conveyances, and urged them to flee for their lives. As the billows of fire came nearer and nearer, Mr. Moody, with his wife and children, made his way into the northwestern district to a place of safety beyond the fire line. Before leaving her home Mrs. Moody took down from the wall an oil painting of her husband and asked him to carry it with him; but he declined, saying that he did not think it would look well for him to be running through the streets of Chicago with his picture in his arms at such a time! Speaking of the fire to a friend some time later, Mr. Moody remarked:

"All I saved was my Bible, my family and my reputation."

We continued to hold services and to help the poor and needy who had lost everything in the fire. We slept together in a corner of the new Tabernacle, with nothing for a bed but a single lounge, and frequently the fierce prairie winds would blow the drifting snow into our room.

During these busy months Mr. Moody was always soliciting help from his friends, for the purpose of rebuilding the church which had been destroyed by fire. I mention the following, as a characteristic incident of his skill in securing money: While walking with him one day along one of the principal streets of the city, we met one of his old acquaintances, and abruptly Moody said to him: ”Look here, my friend, I am glad to see you, and I want one thousand dollars from you to help rebuild my church on the North Side. ”The man looked at him in amazement, and retorted: ”I can't give it to you; I haven't got a thousand dollars. ”Mr. Moody quickly replied: ”Well, you can borrow it. ”The gentleman was so amused and impressed with the earnestness of the petitioner that he at once said: ”All right, Mr. Moody, I'll send you a check to-morrow,” which he did.

In October of 1872 I moved my family to Chicago, and in the same year Mr. Moody went on his second trip to England, leaving me in charge of the work at the Tabernacle, assisted by Major Whittle, Richard Thain, Fleming H. Revell, and others. There were conversions in the church and Sunday school every week.

After Mr. Moody's return we accepted an invitation to go to Springfield, Illinois, to hold services, which were attended with great blessing. Indeed, it seemed that if we had remained and thus worked in our own country a great revival would have taken place. On our way to Springfield the train stopped at a station near Chicago, where a great crowd was assembled on the platform. Mr. Moody sat by an open window. Near by stood a tall, gaunt-looking countryman, with his hands in his pockets, looking at Mr. Moody through the window. Mr. Moody asked him what the crowd meant, and the man replied:

“Oh, the folks have just come down to see the cars."

“Did you know that General Grant was on the train? ”Mr. Moody inquired.

“Oh, is he?”the man exclaimed.

Mr. Moody, with a smile, told him that he was not. Quite nonplussed, the man walked down the platform a little way, but returned in a little while and said:

"Hello, Mister ! We had a great time in town last night."

“How was that?”asked Mr. Moody.

“There was a woman here, and they wouldn't bury her."

"Why wouldn't they bury her? ”Mr. Moody asked. “Because she wasn't dead, ”the man smilingly answered, to the great amusement of his friends.

Mr. Moody turned to me and said: ”Sankey, put that window down!”

About this time my friend Philip Phillips returned from Europe, where he had been singing for one hundred nights in succession. He came to Chicago and stopped with me. He made a very enticing offer, including a large salary and all expenses, if I would go with him to the Pacific coast and there assist him in his services of song. I wouldn't promise anything until I had spent some hours in consultation and prayer with my friend, Mr. Moody; the result was that I remained with him.