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"A Goodly Heritage" (28): Philipp Bliss, 1838-1876

R Cargill, St Monans

Our heritage of hymns has been greatly enriched by the contributions of another American hymn writer from the 19th century, this time a man whose life was cut short by a tragic accident. Philipp Bliss¹ was only 38 years of age when his life's work ended unexpectedly, whereas Fanny Crosby was almost 95.

His Hymns

During the last twelve years of his short life Philipp Bliss wrote hundreds of hymns and also composed tunes for most of them. Many are firm favourites today.

For our praise and worship the best known perhaps is one we often sing at the Lord's Supper,

"Man of Sorrows!" what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

This hymn with its moving tune often brings us to the cross to weep and worship as each of us remembers that "In my place condemned He stood".

Many more of his hymns are evangelical, bearing clear gospel testimony and a call to salvation. Here is an abbreviated list of the best known ones.

Jesus Loves Even Me

The Light of the World is Jesus

Come Sing the Gospel's Joyful Sound

Hallelujah 'tis Done

Wonderful Words of Life

Almost Persuaded now to Believe

More Holiness Give Me

Dare to be a Daniel

Are Your Windows Open Toward Jerusalem?

Only an Armour-Bearer

His Life Story

Philipp Bliss was the third of five children, born on 9th July, 1838, into the home of a godly couple, Isaac and Lydia Bliss, in a log cabin in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. He said of his father, "He was the best man I ever knew; the Bible the only book he ever read. He was always happy, always trusting, always singing". During the first ten years of his life, Philipp had little schooling, but daily family prayers, his father's singing, his mother's teachings from the Bible, all influenced him greatly.

When he was eleven he left home and for the next five years worked in lumber camps and sawmills. He was converted when he was twelve and made his first public confession of Christ, joining the Baptist Church of Cherry Flats, PA. At thirteen he became assistant cook in a lumber camp earning $9 per month, then progressed to become a log cutter, then a sawmill worker. Among the men of the camps he maintained a strong Christian witness and took part in Methodist camp meetings and revival services.

Between jobs, he attended school, preparing for any opportunity that might come along, and also spent some of his money learning music. When he was seventeen, he left lumbering and went to Bradford City, PA where he qualified as a teacher and became schoolmaster at Hartsville, New York. Here he received some voice training from J G Towner who also enabled him to go to a music convention in Rome, PA, where he met W B Bradbury, a composer and collector of sacred music.² Through Bradbury's influence, Philipp Bliss decided to give himself to the service of the Lord.

In 1858 he became a teacher in the Rome Academy, PA where he met a young lady named Lucy Young, a member of a Presbyterian Church which he also joined. She was a poet from a musical family and she encouraged him to develop his musical talents. They were married on 1st June, 1859. He worked on his father-in-law's farm for $13 a month while he continued to study music and compose some songs.

They moved to Chicago in 1864, where he became widely known as a teacher and a singer. He eventually obtained a job with a Chicago Music House, with a salary of $150 per month. For the next eight years he held musical conventions, singing schools and concerts sponsored by his employers. He now began writing some hymns and songs for Sunday Schools.

A Turning Point

One night in 1869 he went into a revival meeting where D L Moody was preaching. Bliss noticed that the singing was poor, and set about helping. This attracted Moody's attention, who then asked him to come to his meetings to help in the singing any time he could. He actually encouraged him to become a singing evangelist. In 1873 he asked Bliss to be his music director for a programme of meetings in England. He declined and Sankey was enlisted. If he had consented it might have been "Moody and Bliss" instead of "Moody and Sankey"!

After Moody's repeated promptings, with serious thought and much prayer Bliss made a formal surrender of his life to Christ. He gave up his musical conventions, his secular song writing, his business position, his work at the church, to be free to devote all his time to evangelistic singing. He teamed up with Major Whittle, an evangelist in Illinois, and they saw many souls saved. He compiled a revival song-book for use in their campaigns entitled Gospel Songs. It was a tremendous success, bringing royalties of $30,000, all of which he gave to Whittle for the development of their evangelism. Later when Moody and Sankey returned from England, Sankey and Bliss combined their hymnbooks, Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos with Bliss's Gospel Songs. The new one was called Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs by Bliss and Sankey.

Hymn Stories

Philipp Bliss often used specific incidents as inspiration for several of his hymns. For example, he wrote Whosoever will may come after hearing Henry Moorehouse preaching for seven consecutive nights on John 3.16.

Let the Lower Lights be Burning...was based on Moody's story of a shipwreck. On a dark stormy night, a large passenger boat was lost when the pilot failed to find Cleveland harbour because he could not see two lower shore lights to line up with the main beacon; they had gone out! Moody's words were, "Brethren, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse; let us keep the lower lights burning!"

Pull for the Shore came from another of Moody's experiences crossing the Atlantic in a steamship when a propeller shaft broke, endangering and delaying the ship. Fear spread among the passengers. Some of them though professing infidels, were led to trust Christ for salvation through his prayers.

Hold the Fort for I am coming was from an incident during the American Civil War when a beleaguered fort was almost taken until a flag was seen on a distant mountain signalling, "Hold the Fort! I am coming".

The Tragedy

In 1876 Philipp Bliss spent the Christmas holidays with his mother and sister at Towanda and Rome, PA, planning to return to Chicago to join Moody in January. However a telegram came asking him to return for meetings on the Sunday after Christmas. He decided to go with his wife, leaving his two little children, Philip Paul age 1 and George age 4, with his mother.

On 29th December, the Pacific Express was struggling through a blinding snowstorm. Eleven coaches pulled by two engines were approaching Ashtabula, Ohio, around 7pm when a wooden trestle bridge across a deep ravine gave way, weakened by flood waters. Fire broke out, started by the paraffin heaters in the wooden coaches. Bliss managed to crawl to safety through a window, but finding his wife was pinned under the seats, he returned to try to rescue her. No trace of their bodies was ever discovered. Of the 159 passengers on that train, 92 were killed in the inferno and most of the others were seriously injured.

After the tragedy, words of a new song he had written were found in his luggage. James McGranahan set it to music. It is another classic:

I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross He suffered,
From the curse to set me free.

On 31st December, at a memorial gathering in Chicago, D L Moody said of him, "In my estimate, he was the most highly honoured of God of any man of his time as a writer and singer of gospel songs, and with all his gifts he was the most humble man I ever knew. I loved him as a brother, and shall cherish his memory". On 5th January another service of song was held to honour his memory when 8,000 filled the hall, and another 4,000 were outside. How many more thousands still sing his hymns today?

To be continued.

¹ His name is sometimes given as Philip Paul Bliss, or P P Bliss, but his name is actually the more unusual Philipp Bliss.

² Bradbury also helped Fanny Crosby – see last month's magazine.


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