Posted by: rcottrill | October 30, 2011

Champions of Gospel Song

We often use the term “hymns” in a broad, generic sense, to refer to all the sacred songs written for congregational use. However, the Bible, in Colossians 3:16, makes a distinction between:

¤ “Psalms” – Scripture set to music, particularly as found in the book of Psalms (e.g. The Lord Is My Shepherd)

¤ “Hymns” – Songs specifically to or about God, directed to Him in praise or prayer (e.g. How Great Thou Art)

¤ “Spiritual songs” – Likely meaning songs of testimony and teaching, that the singers direct more toward one another (e.g. All the Way My Saviour Leads Me)

The nineteenth century saw a special emphasis on the latter of these three. They were often called “Sunday School Songs” in those days, being thought of as a teaching tool for that agency. Now, they are more usually referred to as “gospel songs.” And one of the greatest proponents and promoters of this genre was Ira Sankey (1840-1908), the soloist and song leader for evangelist Dwight L. Moody.

Gospel songs have sometimes been criticized for being simplistic and repetitious and, without question, some are. But for a reason. As thousands gathered to hear Mr. Moody preach, singing was a prominent feature in all the meetings. The evangelist liked to have about forty-five minutes of singing before he spoke. And sometimes the great hymns of the church were used. But the team sensed a need for something more.

There was a place for songs that were easily learned, and readily remembered. Songs that clearly expressed simple Bible truths, ones that would be imbedded in the memory and continue to be used by the Spirit of God to reinforce the message preached from the Word. Often Sankey sang these as solos (sometimes writing them himself.) But if there was to be participation, those present needed a book to read from. (No overhead projectors or “power point” in those days!).

Usually bright and uplifting in style, when the gospel songs expressed biblical truth clearly they performed an important service. Few people would remember details from Moody’s sermons in later years. But those same people could sing the songs that encapsulated the truths he presented many many years afterward. Through the songs, they also had a way of sharing the truths with others.

For a time, the team employed a book called Hallowed Hymns for the meetings, but it was limited in scope. Mr. Sankey approached the publisher to see if a new edition could be issued that included some of the gospel songs they were using. The publisher refused. So Sankey contacted a London firm (Marshall, Morgan and Scott Ltd.) about creating an entirely new book, and the idea was enthusiastically received. The result was Sacred Songs and Solos, edited by Ira Sankey.

The book was introduced in 1873, during Moody and Sankey’s first evangelistic meetings in Great Britain. It became an instant favourite. Revised and augmented a number of times, over the years since, it eventually has come to contain twelve hundred selections. With that, the version including the musical scores is a weighty volume two inches thick, and really too large for the pew. Thus it was the words-only version that was most popular. Tens of millions of copies were sold–over eighty million by the 1930’s.

Many churches and Sunday Schools in the early days adopted Sacred Songs and Solos. The hymns and gospel songs it contained became a link between churches and whole denominations. So well known were the songs that you could simply call out a number, and many would instantly know the song it identified! It was said that you could go to any city in the British Empire, stand on a street corner, and start singing one of the songs from the book, and soon a group of people would gather and join in.

When the Moody team returned to America in 1875, the story was no different. Outstanding gospel song writers in the United States–Fanny Crosby, Philip Bliss, George Stebbins, James McGranahan, and more–added their gifts. Churches bought and used the book, and were delighted with it. (I can recall these red paper-backed books being used regularly in our church, in my younger years.)

Not all of the twelve hundred selections continue to be sung of course. But a surprising number have found their way into other hymn books printed since. I encourage pastors and worship leaders to have a copy of Sacred Songs and Solos on hand. It’s a blessing to sit down at a piano, and play and sing through some of the songs that have been left behind. Don’t be discouraged by the Victorian prose. Some lovely treasures can be found there. Songs worth resurrecting and singing again. Truly Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey were champions of gospel song. We can praise God for what they’ve left us.


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