Born FEBRUARY 14, 1914
Ira Stanphill was one of Christian music’s most outstanding talents of the 2oth Century. During his life, he traveled throughout the United States and in 40 countries, preaching and singing the songs he’d written. Many of his songs have been published in other languages. The depth of his lyrics continue to reverberate in people’s hearts around the world.
Ira grew up in a musical family. By his 10th birthday, he played not only piano and organ, but also the accordion and ukulele. He made his parents’ faith his own at age 12. Ira composed his first Christian song as a teenager. He began singing on the local radio station. Other doors opened.
Ira got a taste for ministry on the road when a traveling evangelist tapped his talents. His ability to minister increased further when Ira sensed a call to preach as well as sing the gospel. He became credentialed with the Assemblies of God.
In 1936, Ira launched his own revival campaign. It concluded in Springfield, Missouri, where he agreed to pastor a congregation. In Springfield, he met Zelma Lawson. She too had musical skills. They married in 1939. Together, they wrote the song “Room at the Cross for You,” which they sang as a duet. Their voices rang out together on the chorus, “Tho’ millions have come, there’s still room for one. Yes, there’s room at the cross for you.”
However, Zelma began drifting away from the cross. She started attending nightclubs and seeing other men. She eventually filed for divorce. Zelma remarried and began singing in the nightclubs. Ira eventually gained custody of their son, Raymond. In 1951, a car accident took Zelma’s life.
Between the divorce and Zelma’s death, Ira reached a personal low in his life. Some criticized him for continuing to preach after his divorce. The voices inside Ira’s head and heart were equally severe. He pondered the direction of his future.
One day, driving to the church he served at the time, Ira poured out his feelings to God. By the time he reached the church, God had birthed a new song in his heart. The experience didn’t give Ira all the answers he wanted, but it gave him the total trust in God he needed. In the decades since, many have experienced fresh faith for the future upon singing or hearing the song, “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow.” The song’s essence is in the words, “Many things about tomorrow, I don’t seem to understand; but I know who holds tomorrow, and I know who holds my hand.”
After Zelma’s death, Ira married Gloria Holloway. Their union was a happy one. In the second half of his life, Ira pastored, traveled as an evangelist and continued writing songs. He also wrote his auto-biography, This Side of Heaven, which was published in 1983 (search for it on Amazon and eBay). In the last few years of his life, Ira and Gloria appeared on some of Bill Gaither’s Homecoming videos.
In December of 1993, a few weeks short of his 80th birthday, Ira suffered a sudden heart attack that ended his life. Ira reached his “mansion over the hilltop.”
In all, Ira wrote over 500 songs that were published. Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) lists information for 80 of them in their database. A number of Ira’s songs have appeared in different denominational hymnals. Some have been recorded on gospel albums by well-known singers.
Why do his songs remain popular? While often writing from personal experience, Ira called forth expressions of faith felt by Christians the world over. We relate to his recurring themes, which celebrate the cross, declare complete trust in God and anticipate Heaven.
LET ME KNOW: How has Ira’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Collins, Ace. Turn Your Radio On. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1999.
- Glenn Gohr, “This Side of Heaven,” A/G Heritage, Summer 1994, accessed February 1, 2012, http://ifphc.org/pdf//Heritage/1994_02.pdf.
- Osbeck, Kenneth. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1985.
You can listen to some of Ira’s best songs on YouTube——————————————-If you type in his name, you’ll find versions of the following songs among others he wrote:
* Follow Me * Happiness is the Lord * He Washed My Eyes with Tears * I Know Who Holds Tomorrow * Mansion Over the Hilltop * Room at the Cross * Suppertime * Unworthy * We’ll Talk it Over and a novelty number titled * The Senior Citizen’s Shuffle. ———————————————————————————————————–