In step with the success of the revival meetings, came the success of Sankey’s new songbook. Other than being a singer, Sankey was also a compiler. He collected the songs of P. P. Bliss, Philip Phillips, G. C. Stebbins, James McGranahan, and Fanny Crosby, many of whom became future editors of the numerous editions of Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos and Gospel Hymns.1
It was in Britain that Sankey first published his Sacred Songs and Solos, and some say it sold as many as fifty million copies. Upon returning to America, Sankey noticed that P. P. Bliss and Whittle had also published a collection of their songs entitled Gospel Songs. They amalgamated their work into Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, published in 1875. Of course, this volume became wildly popular. The volume sold over a million copies in Brooklyn and Philadelphia rallies alone. The following year the team released a second edition, the sales of which were boosted by Bliss’ unexpected death trying to save his wife from a railroad accident. McGranahan replaced Bliss, and over the next fifteen years released four more editions, including 1894’s “Diamond Edition” and the “Excelsior Edition” in 1895.2
These hymnals had staggering popularity, but, of course, this did not happen in a vacuum. The songs used in these hymnals included and resembled the Sunday school songs which were being published during the previous decades. The growth of the Sunday schools, Bible classes, in addition to the increasing amount of missionary work being done in the West created a high demand for cheap hymnals with simple music and texts. Among those filling this need included Bradbury, G. F. Root, W. F. Sherwin, William Doane, and Robert Lowry. Of these names, Sizer writes, “By adding perhaps half a dozen of their lesser-known associates and students plus, the Gospel Hymns editors themselves, one can account for the authorship or arrangement of over seventy percent of the tunes . . . in the final collection of 739 hymns [in Gospel Hymns].”3 Sankey himself contributed several of the melodies, but, as in the case of the others, few lyrics.
Building off this foundation, Moody and Sankey were able to make the hymnals amazingly popular through the means of their revival meetings.4 The hymnal was considered by some to be a kind of “souvenir” of their attendance at the revival meeting. And, although Sizer speculates that Sankey “had a way of perpetuating and enhancing his and Moody’s images because he also had a popular product to sell: his book of songs,”5 it is more probable the other way around—that ultimately “what made Sankey famous was his association with Moody and Moody’s willingness to incorporate this type of music into his evangelistic meetings.”6 In either case, though, the circumstances were right, and Moody and Sankey utilized the window of opportunity in Gospel Songs which had been beginning to become more prominent in the year preceding up to their ministry. Their means of crafting the message to speak to this new secular and industrial age struck a chord with the masses, and their gospel became popular.
1McLoughlin, Revivalism, 234.
2Sandra S. Sizer, Gospel Hymns and the Social Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), 5.
3Ibid, 7. Sizer also highlights the contribution of Lowell Mason and Thomas Hastings.
4See Moore, Selling God, 186.
6McLoughlin, Revivalism, 234.