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[Above: Edwin Excell, center, with fellow-singers F. E. Oliver and E. R. Smoot, from Mrs. Sam P. Jones, The Life and Sayings of Sam P. Jones. [public domain] Atlanta, Georgia: Franklin-Turner, 1907 via Google Books]

ASKED TO NAME a chart-topping Christian singer of our era, you might suggest Michael W. Smith or Andrae Crouch. If you had lived toward the end of the nineteenth century, Edwin O. Excell might have come to mind. He was right up with Ira D. Sankey, P. P. Bliss, Daniel B. Towner, and other major Christian singers/songwriters. Even today the average Christian has probably sung “Count Your Blessings” to the tune Excell wrote, or “Since I Have Been Redeemed” for which he wrote both the words and the tune. If you attended Sunday school you might have sung Nellie Talbot’s “I’ll Be a Sunbeam” with music by Excell. If you collect old hymn books you may own one of his Triumphant Songs series.

The top evangelists of the day knew Excell well. Although he was Sam P. Jones’s vocalist for twenty years, he also worked with Gipsy Smith and several other preachers. Dwight L. Moody  sometimes called on him when he needed a songleader to fill in. 

Excell was also a publishing phenomenon. At its peak, his music company was selling half a million volumes a year. Not only did he assemble and publish collections, he printed hymnals for Protestant denominations. As if that were not enough, he collaborated with producers and distributors of Sunday school material and led singing at Chatauqua camps. Often he led volunteer choirs of hundreds who had never sung together before. He shared the gift of gospel music in almost every state and province of English-speaking North America, a major figure in nineteenth-century Christian outreach.

None of this happened by chance. Born in Ohio at the tail end of 1851, he attended public schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania. He became a diligent worker who worked as a plasterer and bricklayer to pay his bills. But music was his love and he constantly sought opportunities in the field. Some of his early public singing was for U. S. Grant’s presidential campaigns, but he also taught in rural singing schools and became a church choirmaster. Singing in revival services, he became more focused on sacred song. 

Until he sang in a revival series for J. B. Esty, he was himself unconverted. After his change of heart, he determined to focus all his musical energies on church music and attended sessions of George F. Root’s Normal Music Institutes to improve his knowledge. Eventually he moved to Chicago, a center of music publishing. 

Excell devoted the rest of his life to Christian work, first in association with Sunday schools and then in evangelistic singing and publication of Christian music. He wrote over a thousand tunes and issued close to one hundred hymn collections. He helped many younger musicians get into print and broke the virtual monopoly the owners of the Gospel Hymns series had on the field. 

While working with evangelist Gipsy Smith in Louisville, Kentucky, he became ill. He returned to Chicago for medical care and died there on this day, 10 June 1921. Hymn writers such as Charles Gabriel (“Send the Light” and “Brighten the Corner Where You Are”) remembered him with deep regard.

Dan Graves

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For more stories behind great hymns, read Christian History #31, The Golden Age of Hymns

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