Story Behind the Song: When the Roll is Called Up Yonder

By Elizabeth Prata

Oh, but He does, He certainly does take attendance. He knows all about His creation, and not only where each person is, but where each molecule of each person is, dead or alive.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne. And there were open books, and one of them was the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their deeds, as recorded in the books. (Revelation 20:12).

James Milton Black (1856-1938)

In 1893, James Milton Black was a Sunday School teacher in Pennsylvania. He was also the musician for his church and a youth leader. He loved children and taught diligently. One day, cutting through an alley, he met a 14 year old girl living rough. She was the daughter of an alcoholic father. Not having any church education, but being interested, Black invited her to his Sunday School class. She began attending and Black added her name to the class roll. She faithfully attended each week.

One day, when he called the class roll, the girl did not answer. Her absence saddened Black, and more so, he began to think about the shortness of life. The verse from Revelation 20 came to mind, about the Lamb's Book of Life and the names written therein, and the eternal roll up yonder.

The girl's absence from the class haunted Black, and as he said later, "I spoke of what a sad thing it would be when our names are called from the Lamb's Book of Life, if one of us should be absent."

Black set out to find the girl and went to her home in the alley where they had first met. It turned out that the girl was deathly ill with pneumonia. Though Black called upon the doctor to attend to her, she died some days later. Grief stricken, and never having written a hymn before, Black penned the words to the song When the Roll is Called Up Yonder in just 15 minutes, all three stanzas. He spoke those words at the girl's funeral. Her very life, absence from class, and her death inspiring the words that Black now sang over her grave.

Will you be there?

Do you know that you know you will be there?

Mark 1:15 says Jesus came proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel."



Short movie: Bessie: Will you be called? Story of John Black and the song. On Amazon Prime.

Lyrics to When The Roll is Called Up Yonder

Gaithers sing When The Roll is Called Up Yonder