Ira David Sankey was born on August 28, 1840, of Scotch-Irish parents in Brooklyn, New York.
His father was wealthy and a member of the Pennsylvania legislature.
When he was about six, a Scotsman began taking him to Sunday School and taking to him about spiritual things. This man left a lasting impression on the young boy.
As a child, Ira had an amazing ability in music. After only hearing a tune once, he could recall it from memory.
When he was about 15, there was a revival in his hometown, and he was saved, and joined his parent’s Methodist-Episcopal church.
About a year later (1857), the family moved to New Castle, Pennsylvania, where he and his family joined the Methodist-Episcopal Church on Jefferson Street. It was at this Church that Ira began singing, and his baritone voice attracted crowds. His father was the manager of a bank, and Ira was put in a First-Class school to finish his education.
In 1860, a call went out from President Abraham Lincoln for soldiers to stop the “Great Rebellion.” He answered the call by enrolling in the 12th Regiment of Pennsylvania, and while there led the troops in singing hymns at religious services. The term of service was three months.
When he left the army, he took a job working for his father as a clerk in the Internal Revenue Service.
On September 8, 1863, he married Fanny V. Edwards, the daughter of John Edwards, a State Senator. They had two sons.
When he was 22, he was appointed the Sunday School superintendent. The school had about 350 students. It was at this time that he began singing solos and the building became crowded with both parents and pupils wanting to hear him sing.
During this time his fame as a hymn singer spread far and wide, and he had many calls to go work with different ministries. Sankey took each opportunity to sing as seriously as if he were going to preach, spending much time in prayer and Bible study before singing. He also waited on God to make known His will about whether or not he should enter the ministry full time as a musician, even though he had no formal training in music.
He also became active in the New Castle YMCA and its president. In 1870, he attended the Indianapolis YMCA convention as a delegate. One morning, at a prayer meeting at 7 a.m., the singing was slow and drab. Someone then asked Sankey to step up and lead, and the whole atmosphere changed. The singing quickly became enthusiastic and lively. D.L. Moody was in attendance at that meeting and afterwards insisted on meeting Sankey. Moody then told Sankey to quit his job and join him in his Chicago work, saying he had been looking for someone like Sankey for eight years!
At the time, Sankey had a very secure job with good income, a wife and a child. He was very reluctant to give it all up on a whim. So, the following day, Moody asked Sankey to meet him at a particular time at a certain street corner. When Sankey arrived, Moody was setting up a barrel, and he told Sankey to climb up on top of it and start singing. Sankey sang: “Am I a Soldier of the Cross.” There was a crowd of factory workers heading home, and they stopped and listened. Once a good sized crowd was gathered, Moody climbed up on the barrel and preached, and the crowd stayed and listened. It was Moody’s way of showing Sankey the great impact they could have, if they teamed up.
Sankey went back home. He spent much time in prayer, and discussed the offer with his friends. Finally, months later, he decided to go to Chicago for a trial week. Moody and Sankey received a great deal of blessing from working together, so that they were drawn together very closely in that one week. To Sankey there was no longer any doubt. He went home and quit his job and “left all” and moved to Chicago.
As a team, Sankey offset Moody’s impulsiveness and poor English, with his own smooth, cultured ways. Together they made an effective team.
Sankey conducted his singing from a portable organ. His singing was filled with conviction, and stirred the heart. He was always looking to God for poems, and he had a rare ability to set them to music and use them in the next service. With his memory, once the tune was developed, it stuck in his head and he could always recall it and the words.
Six months after Sankey moved, the great Chicago fire destroyed the town. While Moody went on an eastern evangelistic tour, Sankey returned for a short time to be with his family. When Moody’s Tabernacle was rebuilt, he returned to the work in earnest, taking a very active part in the revival that ensued.
Moody and Sankey went to the British Isles for their famous evangelistic campaign in 1873-1875. Sankey’s use of the pump organ to accompany singing was a strange thing to those in Scotland, who were used to singing a capella (without instruments). However, Sankey’s abilities quickly won them over.
The two men continued together for about 30 years, and saw a many people’s lives become changed as the gospel penetrated their hearts. There was a huge demand for a book that churches could use of the hymns that Sankey used, and the result was a 24 page booklet that was printed in 1873 entitled: Sacred Songs and Solos. The book was expanded until it contained about 1200 songs! By 1927, seventy million copies had been printed and distributed! Both men relinquished rights to the royalties, instead giving them to evangelistic work.
When Sankey returned to the United States, he published a second book in 1875 entitled: Gospel Songs and Sacred Hymns. In this book, he merged his work with Philip Bliss’ Gospel Songs book. This book was followed with five more volumes. All of them were compiled into one book and later published as Gospel Hymns. It sold fifty million copies.
In the 1880’s Moody and Sankey’s partnership gradually dissolved as Sankey’s voice became weaker.
From 1881-1884, he made a second extended evangelistic tour of the British Isles.
In 1885, he was able to give $40,000 to the YMCA of Newcastle, Pennsylvania, so they could build a new building. These were the royalties from the sale of his hymn books.
From 1895 until he died, Sankey was the president of Biglow and Main, a music company that published many of his works.
On December 22, 1899, D.L. Moody died.
Around 1903, Sankey became blind from glaucoma, and he found a good friend in the famous blind poet, Fanny Crosby.
Sankey died on August 13, 1908.
Some of the hymns he wrote were:
John Lobb, editor. D.L. Moody, Arrows and Anecdotes (Redding, California: Pleasant Places Press, 2005) p. 38.
Osbeck, K.W. 101 Hymn Stories. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982) pp. 90, 214, 252.
Osbeck, K.W. 101 More Hymn Stories. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1985) pp. 216, 295, 296, 307.
Christian History Magazine-Issue 25: Dwight L. Moody: 19th C. Evangelist (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1990) "Ira D. Sankey."
G.A. Comfort, "Sankey, Ira David." editors J.D. Douglas, Philip Wesley Comfort and Donald Mitchell, Who's Who in Christian History (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1997, c1992).
George Thomas Kurian, Nelson's New Christian Dictionary: The Authoritative Resource on the Christian World (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Pubs., 2001) "Sankey, Ira David."
The above facts have been taken from brief articles written separately or as revisions by Faith, Elizabeth and Deborah Macomber, and compiled and greatly expanded by Pastor Clinton Macomber. There might have been other sources, but the ones listed here are known.