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1876 A.D.:  Ira Sankey Sings On Christmas Eve




Evangelist Dwight Moody


   American Dwight Moody is likely going to be ranked among the greatest and most prolific evangelists of all time.  He was a very determined and probably God empowered force for Christ's kingdom.  In the 1800's when he worked, perhaps no name was bigger.  In that age of slow man travel and slow news travel, he still managed to be known of almost everywhere.  Some sources claim that he may have spoken to 100 million people by one means or another.  That was back in the 1800's.  He was a force, all right.  But not a force of one. 

  Dwight Moody was no singer by his own reckoning, but he understood the importance of singing together in worship to God and Jesus.  He felt that when thoughts of Jesus and salvation were on a man's lips, the Lord was certainly not far from taking up residence in that same person's heart.  That's a pretty wise insight I think.  I've felt very moved in my heart sometimes when a group of us believers were singing in worship to the Lord.  Sometimes that's when I've felt my very closest to God.

  It should not be surprising, therefore, that some of the most effective ministry years of Dwight Moody happened when he teamed up with the very well known gospel singer Ira Sankey.  Then they were a force of two: the preached word of Moody coupled with the heartfelt notes and words of worship that everyone would sing together, led by Mr. Sankey.

Famous Gospel Singer Ira Sankey 


  Together, most often sharing equal billing, they travelled to many a place for God, and were famously successful at holding the sort of revival meetings that led to many souls being saved, many people giving their lives over to Jesus, and the sort of powerful revival spirit left behind that would keep burning long after they had traveled on.  

  They were a team for the Lord, and one of the more powerful of all time.

  Sankey had been a good singer even as a young man.  Notably good.  It was said that the churches he attended would begin to fill up as the Sundays went by, because the worship singing was so beautiful. 

  He had a pretty normal upbringing.  He was born in Edinburg, Pennsylvania in 1840 to Scotch/Irish parents, and eventually moved to Newcastle, Pennsylvania with them while still young.  As a young man he even went to serve in the military when the American Civil War broke out, with the 12th Pennsylvania Regiment.  He survived that, luckily.  God probably helped make sure of it.

  As an adult, he one day sang at a church that Dwight Moody was attending.  Moody came up to him, shook his hand, and in the same conversation informed him that he would need to quit his job (US Postal Service) so that he could team up with Moody and they could work full time together for God.  Moody acted like the decision had already been made.  He'd been looking for Sankey for years, Moody told him.  And now he'd found him.  That musical team mate that he knew he needed.

  Sankey didn't quit his job right away.  He was a married man with two children.  It wasn't the sort of thing that sounded wise. But Moody was very determined that Sankey's fate was to join him in ministry.  Within about 6 months, Moody was right.  Sankey quit and joined the already famous Moody.  Moody was doing ministry work in Chicago at that time.  They enjoyed great success together, and their meetings were widely attended. 

  The 'Great Chicago Fire' came along unfortunately, causing them to have to leave the devastated city. Sankey actually had to jump into a boat and go out a ways onto the great lake with some other fire refugees to escape the flames.  Yet, afterwards, he and Moody just went elsewhere to work. Their collaboration was fairly long and fruitful.

  But they were not together at all times.  One time in particular, on Christmas Eve of 1876, Ira Sankey was on the Deleware River traveling by steam boat.  I do not know where he was going, or why, but a pretty famous story is told of a thing which occured on that ship as these various strangers traveled together on this day of the holy rememberance of Jesus' birth.

  A group of the passengers were gathered on the deck, and one of them looked over and recognized that it was Ira Sankey leaning against one of the great exhaust stacks of the ship, quietly sharing their company.

  The person who recognized him pointed him out as a celebrity singer of sorts to the rest of the crowd, and they imposed upon him to sing them some Christmas hymn or another if he would.  Fairly put on the spot by the small crowd, he agreed to try, and stepped forward to think of a song and begin.

  It is said that as he thought of which song he should sing, he naturally realized that a Christmas song would be appropriate.  But for some reason another song pressed forward in his mind as the right one to sing.  It was called 'The Shepherd's Song', and though there are several with that name, this is one that had been around a good while, and was popular and well known and loved among a certain group of Americans then living.

  The gathered crowd on the ship grew still and they were greatly moved in their hearts as he sang the beautiful song very well to them that evening.  It was said to be hushed when he finished. 

  But then a man moved forward, a man said to be kind of a rough looking character, and he began to ask Ira Sankey some questions.

  "Had he been in the war?"   "Had he been with the Union?" "Could he remember singing that very song one night while on gaurd duty, back when he had been in the war?"

  To all these questions, Ira answered yes, and the man then explained that he had also been out that night, and he had been a soldier with the South.  He recounted how, while out moving around, he had seen the young Northern sentry very clearly in the moonlight of that night, while he himself was well hidden in the shadows, yet pretty close.  He said that he had said silently to himself that 'that was a dead soldier standing there', and he had raised his rifle slowly from back in the shadows and placed the sights squarely on the young man, with very little chance of missing at such close range.

  But before he squeezed off the shot, he recounted how the young sentry had suddenly begun to sing this same 'Shepherd's Song', and that it was a beautiful thing to hear it on that quiet moonlit night, so he had decided to wait.  But as the lines of the song went by, it had brought to the man's mind the rememberance of many things now gone, but precious.  He had remembered his own mother, his well loved mother, singing that song in his youth.  And inside of him had stirred a lot of feelings and hurts and losses, and that sort of thing.  He was overcome by the emotions that went through him, they were so many and so deep, and thoughts of God were in him just then.  So he lowered the rifle, and he felt himself unable to raise it again when the young Ira had finished the song, so he had just slipped away quietly into the moonlight and shadows of the night.

  As the rough looking man on the deck of the steamer finished the story, he was choked up, and he admitted that he was in need of getting right with God even then and there, as he spoke.  Ira moved forward and embraced the man, and then they spoke together about what the man needed to do to be saved, as the story goes.

  It's funny how things work out in the world.  God can weave a story line using actual events and people that can really not be surpassed by the best of fiction.  God is mighty, and sovereign, merciful and tender, and loving far beyond the desserts of his human children.  Praise to Jesus our given and rightful King, and to God our Father. 

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