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Object of the Month #4
The Famous Ira David Sankey
Staffordshire Figure of Sankey (2013.01.039)
January 2015

Ira David Sankey “has made the town of Edenburg [Pennsylvania] famous, and millions will hear of it, because of their interest in him as Mr. Moody’s associate whose songs of grace and salvation are ringing round the world."[1] You have heard of Ira David Sankey, haven’t you? No? As we approach Founder’s Day, let’s step away from D.L. Moody briefly and introduce the man whose music helped Moody evangelize on both sides of the Atlantic.

January’s Object of the Month is a pottery statue of Sankey from England, known as a Staffordshire figure. The figure is 35 cm tall (almost 14”) and made of glazed creamware, standing right arm akimbo, left hand resting on a book (presumably the Bible). Sporting a tidy set of muttonchops, he is wearing a black frock coat and trousers, and a white waistcoat and bow tie. The figure is a flatback, meaning that its rarely displayed back side was produced with minimal detail. “SANKEY” has been molded in relief into the base and painted gold. I have found references to Sankey and Moody figures in two different sizes,[2] although interestingly this Sankey represents a possibly unrecorded third. There is no maker’s mark, although it is likely from the Sampson Smith factory.[3]

Staffordshire figures were produced in Staffordshire County in central England, about three hours northwest of London. The area has been known for its pottery since the 18th century, especially the collectible figures marketed to the middle and lower classes. Sold almost exclusively in England, they were never exported in great quantities. The figures were made by pressing clay into molds, and were then glazed and fired.

Now we need to backtrack slightly and talk more about Ira David Sankey. Born in 1840, he was drawn to both Methodism and music, and directed several choirs. Fatefully, in 1870 he attended a revival in Indianapolis and was noticed by a rather frustrated D.L. Moody. Moody was:
inwardly chafing over the slow formalism of the occasions, and especially was annoyed by the dull singing. When an opportunity came Mr. Sankey started a grand hymn and poured out voice and heart and soul through the words, and caused a thrill of enthusiasm to run over the assembly… Mr. Moody rushed up to the stranger and eagerly inquired about him, and announced [that] … he must give up all and come with him.[4]
A brown wax cylinder recording of Sankey singing “The Ninety and Nine” with gusto, one of his most popular hymns, survives today. You can hear for yourself the voice Moody found so captivating.

Moody must have been very persuasive, because in short order Sankey joined him in Chicago. In the spring of 1873 they sailed for England, invited to preach there by three gentlemen (two of whom died before their arrival). There was no advance publicity, and no-one else expecting them. Their first meetings were sparsely attended. Surprisingly, this inauspicious beginning ended with smashing success. By the end of the tour thousands of people were crowding auditoriums to hear them speak and sing.[5]

This success led to publication of the bestseller, Moody & Sankey Gospel Hymns. East Hall and Stone Hall at Northfield, and Recitation Hall at Mount Hermon are said to have been “sung up” from just some the royalties. The $106,000 spent on these buildings[6] would be worth upwards of two million today.

And this is where Sankey, Moody, and pottery intersect. As revivalists, Sankey and Moody would have been interested in reaching the same, general audience that found Staffordshire figures so collectible. Their tour of England would have been known to the Staffordshire potters, who hastily added figures of both men to their repertoire. The tour made the two men almost instant celebrities, represented in clay and displayed on mantels across England as mementos and/or inspirations.

We don’t know how this particular Sankey came to be in the archives, but he was probably bought in England, along with a matching Moody figure. There are several Moody figures at the Birthplace, and maybe others undiscovered on campus. Among them is almost certainly a 35 cm tall Moody.

So on Founder’s Day when D.L. Moody’s memory is foremost, think of Ira David Sankey as well. Without him, Moody might not have reached such a large, international audience. At one time he and Moody were presented to the English public as a pair of equals through the medium of pottery.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Goodspeed, E. J., Rev. (1876). The Wonderful Career of Moody and Sankey in Great Britain and America. New York, Henry S. Goodspeed & Company, 45.

[2] Pugh, P. D. G. (1970). Staffordshire Portrait Figures and Allied Subjects of the Victorian Era. London, Barrie & Jenkins, 392-3.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Goodspeed, 50-1.

[5] Ibid., 60, 214.

[6] Carter, B. (1976). So Much to Learn. Mount Hermon, Mass., Northfield Mount Hermon School, 263, 266.