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


We soon learned that we were in the hands of a pastor who was known throughout that section as ”the pope of the north, ”and that none of the other ministers had been asked to join in the services. For the first time in the history of that chapel a small cabinet organ was not only brought in, but given conspicuous place in the large pulpit, from which place I was better able to command the galleries and lead the singing than would have been the case had the organ occupied a place on the floor below.

Up to this time we had not organized any choirs to assist in the singing, but the people were learning the American tunes very fast, and the singing was becoming a marked feature of the meetings.

The hymn most used by our congregations in those days was, ”Sun of my soul, ”to the tune ”Hursley,” which was almost the only distinctively English tune with which I was familiar up to that time, and finding that it could be adapted to ”Rock of Ages,” and many other hymns, we used the tune in almost every meeting.

During our stay at Sunderland we occupied ”lodgings,” ordering from the market such provisions as we desired, having the cooking done for us by those in charge of the house. On one occasion Mr. Moody was requested to order some fish, and, going through the market that day, he discovered a beautiful salmon, weighing not less than fifteen pounds, which he immediately purchased and had sent to our home. A fish of four or five pounds would have been abundantly large for our temporary wants, but Mr. Moody's generosity kept us in salmon during the remainder of our stay in that city. This was only a small indication of the large things always devised by Mr. Moody.

While here Mr. R. C. Morgan, of London, editor of ”The Christian,” having heard of the work that was going on in the north, visited us for the purpose of writing up an account of the meetings for his paper, and while seated one day at the dinner table, I remarked to him that I was afraid what I had heard about the English people being slow and conservative was all too true. I spoke with considerable animation on the subject, and he inquired what I meant. I then told him of my attempt to give away my sacred songs, which were in such demand by the people, and that I could get no one to take them. He at once remarked that as he had been printing musical leaflets for a number of years, he would be glad to take some of mine with him to London and publish them in a small paper-covered pamphlet. So I cut from my scrap-book twenty-three pieces, rolled them up, and wrote on them the words, ”Sacred Songs and Solos, sung by Ira D. Sankey at the meetings of Mr. Mood) of Chicago."

Mr. Morgan returned to London the next day, and in about two weeks we received 500 copies of the pamphlet, which was first used at an all-day meeting, held near the close of our mission in Sunderland. The little book was sold at sixpence per copy, and before the day was over every book had been purchased. We immediately telegraphed for a still larger supply, which was also soon exhausted, and a few days later copies were seen not only in the windows of bookstores, but grocers', dry-goods establishments, etc. Thus began the publication and sale of a book which, together with the edition of words only, has now grown into a volume of twelve hundred pieces.

During all our campaigns abroad it was our custorn to rest on Saturdays, and to make excursions into the country on that day, whenever it was convenient. While at Sunderland, one Saturday, we took a cab and drove a few miles northward along the seashore. Coming to an almost perpendicular cliff rising hundreds of feet above the level of the sea, we descended by a stairway to the beach below. For a while we enjoyed ourselves by walking along the shore, examining the beautiful shells left exposed by the tide, which had gone out before we arrived. Our attention was soon arrested by some one shouting from the top of the cliff. We saw a man wildly beckoning to us to return. On looking around we discovered that the tide had risen and had filled a deep channel between us and the stairway. It was clear that we had no time to lose. Mr. Moody suggested that I should plunge in and lead the way to the cliff as quickly as possible, and while I did so he stood looking on, convulsed with laughter at my frantic strides through the water over the slippery stones. But I reached a place of safety. Then the tables were turned, and it was my opportunity to enjoy a sight not soon to be forgotten, as my friend slowly and with considerable difficulty waded through the constantly rising water to the place where I stood. We were to hold a Bible reading that afternoon at three o'clock. Not having time to go to our lodgings for a chance of clothing, we at once proceeded to the place of the meeting, and we held the service in our wet clothes and shoes.

The experience which we had just passed through suggested to me the hymn, ”Pull for the shore, sailor, pull for the shore, ”and I sang the hymn at this meeting for the first time in England.

Many interesting incidents occurred at the Sunderland meetings, of which I recall the following: One evening at the conclusion of a very earnest gospel address, I was requested to sing a hymn which had hitherto been greatly blessed in bringing wanderers into the fold, ”Come home, O prodigal, Come home! ”A deep hush prevailed during the singing, and just before its conclusion a cry was heard through the building: ”Oh, father, will you forgive me?”while a young man rushed from the back part of the room down the middle aisle to where his father was seated. Throwing his arms around his neck, and with the deepest emotion, he begged forgiveness for some great wrong that he had done. The father rose from his seat and said: ”My boy, I forgive everything; come now, let us go into the vestry and ask God to forgive us both, even as I have forgiven you. ”This incident made a profound impression upon the whole congregation, and that night hundreds of penitents retired to an adjoining room for prayer and consultation. From this time on the spirit of anxious inquiry deepened throughout the city, and in a few days Victoria Hall, the largest in the city, seating 3,000, was engaged for our meetings, and was crowded to the doors during the remainder of our stay.

While here a prominent Christian gentleman of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Mr. Richard Hoyle, who had heard of our work, came over, and, after attending some meetings, asked if we would come to his city. Mr. Moody told him that if the ministers of Newcastle would unite in requesting us to come we would gladly do so. Mr. Hoyle returned to his city and, calling the ministers together, told them what he had seen and heard at Sunderland. As a result of this meeting a petition was at once signed by a large number of non-conformist ministers, together with a few prominent laymen, and forwarded to Mr. Moody, who immediately accepted the invitation. On August 25 we arrived at Newcastle. It was a dark, gloomy night, the town being enveloped in a dense fog. At the chapel which had been selected for our opening meeting that night we found very few present. In the small audience I was impressed with the radiant countenance of one of the ladies, who sat near the front. From the opening hymn to the close of Mr. Moody's address, the expression on her face seemed to show that she fully understood and appreciated the message that was being proclaimed, and at the close she came forward, thanking the preacher and the singer for what she had heard, and predicting that before many days a great blessing from God would be poured out upon that community. How truly this prophecy of Hannah Swinburn was fulfilled is now known to all. Shortly afterward I was invited with my wife to this lady's home, and with her delightful family we spent some of the happiest hours in the Old Country.

In a few days the evening meetings became so crowded that overflow meetings had to be held in near-by halls and chapels. A remarkable impression was made at this place upon some of the people known as Quakers, or Society of Friends. It was not only by Mr. Moody's stirring addresses and Bible lectures, but also by the new hymns and tunes, the like of which had never been heard in the city before. It was not an uncommon sight to see an aged Quaker lady, dressed in the garb of her sect, as soon as it was announced that I would sing in the overflow meeting, get up and follow me to the place of the meeting, and take a place near the platform, where she could hear the new songs. It was at this place that I first began singing the new songs, ”The Sweet By and By,” "That will be Heaven for me,” and ”Christ Arose,” which soon became so popular all over Great Britain, also such hymns as ”Come to the Saviour,” "When He Cometh,” etc. It was most interesting to notice how quickly the people took up these songs; they sang them in the ship-yards on Tyneside, on the streets, in the railway trains, and in the market-places. It was the beginning of a revolution in Great Britain in the matter of popular sacred songs, and now, though over thirty years have rolled by, it is said they are still in great favor with the people. It was while in this city that we organized the first ”Moody and Sankey” choir.

As the mission here was nearing its close, we went to the town of Walker to hold a meeting, and addressed a large number of workingmen connected with the shipbuilding industry at that place. At the close of the meeting, as we were about to leave the hall, and while I was on the platform gathering up my hymn-books, a very refined-looking gentleman, with a strong Scotch accent, came up to me and said: ”Do you think Mr. Moody would go to Edinburgh if he had an invitation from the ministers there?”This canny Scot had been attending our meetings for the past ten days, and was reporting what he had witnessed to his ministerial friends in Scotland. He was somewhat disguised, for he wore an old, soft, white hat, while at home he wore a very proper high silk hat. I told him that I thought Mr. Moody would be very glad to go to Scotland, but that he had better speak to him about it. At the close of the meeting this gentleman, who proved to be the Rev. John Kelman, of Leith, who afterward became chairman of our general committee in Edinburgh, took from his pocket a petition, largely signed by ministers and prominent laymen, asking us to come to Edinburgh for a series of meetings. He handed the paper to Mr. Moody, who at once accepted the invitation.

Before going to Scotland we visited Bishop Auckland, Middleton, Darlington and Carlisle. In many of the smaller places we found considerable difficulty in securing small cabinet organs, it being inconvenient and expensive to carry our own instrument from place to place. I shall never forget an experience in Bishop Auckland. The organ, which had been supplied by the committee, was placed in a high pulpit, where there was room for both speaker and singer. The organ did fairly well, till near the close of the meeting. While Moody was in the vestry speaking to the inquirers, I remained with one of the ministers in the large hall, conducting a service of prayer. While thus engaged, the organ suddenly became disorganized and proceeded to give forth a number of discordant sounds, which I was utterly unable to suppress, and in despair I rushed into the vestry, where Moody was speaking to a number of inquirers. He asked me why I had left the prayer-meeting in the other room. I took him to the door of the chapel and asked him to listen. The organ was still pouring forth its shrill and inharmonious notes, and the prayer-meeting was brought to a rather abrupt conclusion.

We went to Carlisle on November 15, 1873, on the invitation of a prominent Christian worker with whom we had no acquaintance whatever, but who proved to be one of the leading Plymouth Brethren of that place. But one minister and the pastor of the chapel where we held the meeting attended the first service. For a few days there was no power in the meetings, and Moody decided to call together all the ministers of the place to see what was wrong. When assembled he asked them if they knew what was the cause of the lack of interest in the meetings. One minister arose and said that he had not attended, because he did not believe in ”sheep stealing.” Others expressed the same sentiment, saying that as we had come to the place by invitation of one who was not in sympathy with the ministers and their work, as carried on in the churches and chapels, they had decided not to have anything to do with this mission. Mr. Moody at once arose and said that he had never before been accused of ”sheep stealing,” or of working to either build up or tear down any one denomination of Christians; that he had come to Carlisle to preach the gospel, and that he desired the co-operation of all the ministers of the place, and asked them if they would not join him in prayer over the subject. He asked that each one present lead in prayer, and when this was done there was established the most kindly and brotherly feeling, and all promised to be present at all the meetings which were to follow.

It was a dismal night in November, 1873, when our train rolled into the station in the city of Edinburgh. Desiring to avoid the formality of a reception at the hands of the committee and friends who had invited us to conduct a series of evangelistic meetings in their city, we had refrained from notifying them as to the hour of our arrival. Securing public cabs from the numerous array massed about the station, we were soon rattling along the well-lighted streets to the places where we were to abide.

I had selected a hotel on the principal street, not far from the Walter Scott monument, and after being assigned my room walked out on the crowded thoroughfare for a stroll. I had not proceeded half a block when a hand was laid on my shoulder, and a voice said, ”Ah, Mr. Sankey, is this you? When did you arrive, and where is Mr. Moody?”

I gave the desired information in a few words and then made bold to ask, ”And, pray, who are you?"

“The chairman of your committee, ”he responded.” And I've been waiting for days to hear when you would arrive. Come away. You're not to be stopping at a public hotel when there are a hundred homes ready to receive you."

So, hurrying me into a cab, and arranging with the hotel-keeper to release my room, I was soon welcomed into one of the most delightful homes in all Edinburgh. It was while abiding in this house that I wrote the music of my first Gospel song, ”Yet there is room."

Our first meeting in Edinburgh was advertised to be held on Sunday evening, November 23, and long before the hour for commencing the service arrived the whole building was densely packed to its utmost corners; even the lobbies, stairs and entrance were crowded with people, while more than two thousand were turned away.

The first announcement made was a sad disappointment to the congregation, for it was that Mr. Moody could not be present, he having contracted a severe cold the day before, while on the train en route from Carlisle. It was further announced that Mr. Sankey would conduct the service of song, and the Rev. J. H. Wilson would preach.

This was indeed a trying hour for the singer. Much had been said and written in Scotland against the use of ”human hymns” in public worship, and even more had been uttered against the employment of the ”kist o' whistles, ”the term by which they designated the small cabinet organ I employed as an accompaniment to my voice.

A goodly number of ministers and prominent laymen were present. After the opening prayer I asked all to join in singing a portion of the One Hundredth Psalm. To this they responded with a will, as it was safe and common ground for all denominations, and no questions were raised as to Mr. Rouse having introduced anything ”human” into David's version as found in the Bible. This was followed by reading the Scriptures and prayer.

The service having been thus opened in regular order, we now faced the problem of ”singing the gospel"—a term first devised and used by the Rev. Arthur A. Rees, of Sunderland, England, some months before, in advertising our meetings in that city, and since then much discussed in Scotland. The song selected for my first solo was ”Jesus of Nazareth passeth by." The intense silence that pervaded that great audience during the singing of this song at once assured me that even ”human hymns,” sung in a prayerful spirit, were indeed likely to be used of God to arrest attention and convey gospel truth to the hearts of men in bonny Scotland, even as they had in other places.

After a powerful address by Dr. Wilson, and a closing prayer, I was requested to sing another solo. Selecting ”Hold the Fort,” then comparatively new in Edinburgh, the audience was requested to join in singing the chorus,” Hold the fort, for I am coming,” which they did with such heartiness and such power that I was further convinced that gospel songs would prove as useful and acceptable to the masses in Edinburgh as” they had in the cities of York and Newcastle in England.

In our meetings held prior to entering Scotland, it had been our custom to have the committee in charge of the various meetings—often three and four, in different localities, in a day—see that organs were placed in the halls and chapels ready for use. In Edinburgh we failed to inform the committee that upon them would devolve the matter of placing the organs in each hall and church as needed. The consequence of this oversight was that at our second meeting, held in Barclay Free Church, there was no organ provided, and therefore we could have no solo singing or gospel hymns.

When the committee discovered, about the hour for commencing the service, that the organ was not present, but away off at the Music Hall, they sent after the missing instrument, which was brought with great speed.

They hoped to arrive at the meeting in season for the closing exercises, and this end they certainly would have attained had not the Jehu in charge been over zealous in the use of his whip. In whirling round a corner near the church at too great a speed he overturned the vehicle, rolling both deputation and ”kist o' whistles” into the middle of the street.

The ”kist” was in a sadly demoralized condition, and its appearance now strangely suggestive of its Scotch name. The outcome of the disaster was that Mr. Moody had to conduct the second meeting alone, as I had led the first alone.

These occurrences evidently greatly pleased some of the Scotch folks, as they were heard to say:” It had a fine tendency to break up any scheme the evangelists might have had in their working together."

The third meeting was held in the same church, and great interest was manifested by the citizens. The question of the solo singing, as to its propriety and usefulness, was not as yet fully understood or admitted ; hence it was with much fear and trepidation that we thus really entered, this third night, upon our three months' campaign.

As I took my seat at the instrument on that, to me, most memorable evening, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Dr. Horatius Bonar was seated close by my organ, right in front of the pulpit. The first gospel-song music I had ever composed, written since coming to Edinburgh, was set to words which he wrote—”Yet there is room."

Of all men in Scotland he was the one man concerning whose decision I was most solicitous. He was, indeed, my ideal hymn-writer, the prince among hymnists of his day and generation. And yet he would not sing one of his own beautiful hymns in his own congregation, such as, ”I heard the voice of Jesus say,” or ,”I was a wandering sheep, ”because he ministered to a church that believed in the use of the Psalms only.

With fear and trembling I announced as a solo the song, ”Free from the Law, oh, happy condition."

No prayer having been offered for this part of the service, and feeling that the singing might prove only an entertainment, and not a spiritual blessing, I requested the whole congregation to join me in a word of prayer, asking God to bless the truth about to be sung.

In the prayer my anxiety was relieved. Believing and rejoicing in the glorious truth contained in the song, I sang it through to the end.

At the close of Mr. Moody's address, Dr. Bonar turned toward me with a smile on his venerable face, and reaching out his hand he said: ”Well, Mr. Sankey, you sang the gospel to-night."

And thus the way was opened for the mission of sacred song in Scotland.