Story Behind The Song – “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder”

We all have hymns that are our very favorites, and have withstood the test of time.  This one brings back precious memories from long ago, and continues to make new memories as it is sung in churches across our nation.  What beautiful imagery it creates of the day when Christ will return, and God calls His children home.


James Milton Black was born on August 19, 1856, in South Hill, New York.  He studied music and was educated in singing and playing the organ. In 1882, James moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he was greatly involved in Christian work through the Methodist church.  He was a well-known musician and composer of hymns and gospel songs.  James taught music during the week, and in his spare hours he was a song leader, Sunday school teacher and youth leader.  He also found time to edit hymnals.

James loved young people and had a passion for bringing them to Christ.  One day, as he was walking through an alley not far from his home, he saw a young girl sitting on the porch of a very run down house.  Her clothes were ragged and her shoes were torn.  James recognized her, and knew that her father drank heavily, and her mother took in clothes to wash and sew in order to make money to provide for the family’s needs.  James asked the girl if she would like to attend Sunday School the following Sunday morning.  She responded that she would, but had nothing appropriate to wear to church.  James went out and bought her a dress, shoes and hat and delivered them to her home.  The next week James asked again if she would like to attend Sunday School, and she said yes.

She began attending on a regular basis, and became a very faithful servant in the church.  Her time spent in the fellowship with other Christians became a very bright light in a life otherwise filled with misery and poverty.  She came each week, always sitting in her chosen place.

Every Sunday the attendance roll was called, and each person was to respond with scripture when their name was spoken.  When the secretary called the name “Bessie”, there was no answer.  Her name was called a second time, but still there was no response.  Thinking that she may not have heard her name, James stood and called her name a third time, but the room was silent.  James had a sudden and strange vision.  “What if this girl should never answer again?  What if she should die?  What, if, when the final call was made, she failed to answer?  What a sad thing it would be, if our names are called from the Lamb’s Book of Life, and one of us would be absent.”

Concerned for the child’s well being, James visited Bessie’s home after Sunday school to see why she had not shown up for class.  He found her dangerously ill with pneumonia, and death was imminent.

James returned home, tears in his eyes, and his spirit deeply troubled.  He searched through his music to find a song that fit the idea of a heavenly roll call, but he could not find one.  In his mind, he heard a voice say, “Why don’t you write one?”  James sat down at his piano, and in just a few minutes wrote the words and accompaniment to the song that we know today as “When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder.”

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,
And the glory of His resurrection share;
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care;
Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

A few days later, James sadly explained how the song came to be written when it was sung at the girl’s funeral whose absence at roll call had inspired it.

James Milton Black passed from this life on December 21, 1938.

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