“When the roll is called up yonder”, it’s one of the most well known Christian hymns in the last 100 years. This hymn was written by a Sunday school teacher James M. Black in Williams Port Pennsylvania.
The history tells that this man used to call the roll at his Sunday school, in a children’s meeting in 1893, but when he called a young girl named Bessie, she wasn’t present in the service.
The teacher Black, disappointed for the absence of the Young girl, decided to make a joke saying: “well, I hope when the roll is opened up there and the list is passed, she is there”. Afterwards he felt motivated of singing a hymn about this topic, but he couldn’t find it not even in his own hymnbook.
Later, James Black discovered that the young girl couldn’t attend the Sunday school due to health problems; she had pneumonia.
Black, intrigued by the lack of a hymn about this theme, proposed to his heart to write one, and as soon as he returned home, he sat at the piano and started to compose that song. The tears filled his eyes while he was intoning the song. “The words flowed to me without any effort”. Black said. He also mentioned that some days later, after checking the hymn, the melody came out in the same way.
This hymn became quickly in a classic in all the churches and Christian meetings of that time. It has been translated to more than fourteen languages. It was also used as musical theme in the movie Sergeant York (1941) which won an Oscar prize in Hollywood. It has been sang also by some presidents like Winston Churchill and many different artists, from various genres of music around the world