William James Kirkpatrick was born in 1838 to a musical family. In 1854 he went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to study music and carpentry. During the Civil War, he served as a fife major with the 91st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers. Following the war he was connected with the furniture industry, but at the death of his first wife he left that occupation and devoted himself entirely to his music ministry. He published his first collection, Devotional Melodies (1859), at the age of 21. He went on to compile about 100 books. He wrote the music to many gospel songs.