He was the son of David and Mary (Leeper) Sankey.
In 1861 he enlisted in the 12th Pennsylvania infantry, and after serving out his time became a deputy in the Revenue Service under his father, who was US collector of Internal Revenue, appointed by President Lincoln. In 1870 he went as a Y.M.C.A. delegate to the International Convention in Indianapolis, and it was there that he first met Dwight L. Moody, with whom he soon afterward became associated in evangelistic work. Sankey and Moody went to Great Britain in 1871, and in 1873, during their memorable campaign there, Sankey compiled the first of the 'Sacred Songs and Solos' series, the songs of which were soon sung the world over. His most famous sacred songs were: 'The Ninety and Nine'; 'There'll Be No Dark Valley'; 'When the Mists Have Rolled Away'; 'Faith is the Victory'; 'A Shelter in the Time of the Storm'. He also edited: Winnowed Hymns (1890); Christian Endeavor Hymns (1894); Young People's Songs of Praise (1902).
The Twentieth Century Biographical Dictionary of Notable Americans, vol. 9, p. 232; Who Was Who in America, vol. 1, 1897-1942, Chicago, 1943.