PHILIP BLISS

Born JULY 9, 1838

Philip Bliss  [PD-1923]

Philip Bliss [PD-1923]

For the 1876 Christmas holiday, Philip and his wife “Lucy,” visited his hometown of Rome, Pennsylvania. On December 29, they left their two young children in the care of an aunt. Philip and Lucy boarded a train bound for Chicago to participate in a New Year’s Eve service. Traveling through a blizzard in Ohio, the train crossed a viaduct near the town of Ashtabula. Suddenly, the bridge collapsed. The passenger cars plummeted 70 feet onto the frozen river.

The coaches caught on fire. It’s believed that Philip survived the crash itself, but returned to help Lucy. The fire consumed them. That’s how Philip Paul Bliss, age 38, left this life. He lived the years he had rescuing and helping millions.

MUSIC IN HIS SOUL

Philip was born in a log cabin in the mountains of Pennsylvania. His humble surroundings included the simple yet vibrant faith his parents imparted to him. He was drawn to the sounds of nature. When he was seven, he made a reed instrument because he wanted to imitate the bird sounds he heard. While peddling vegetables from house to house in a nearby village at age ten, Philip first heard the music of a piano.

Philip made a personal commitment to Christianity in 1850. He joined the Cheery Flats Baptist Church. He was baptized in a creek near his home. Following his primary education, Philip attended a singing school. Afterwards, he traveled through the Pennsylvania villages, offering lessons to children.

MARRIAGE AND MUSIC

Philip and Lucy Bliss wedding photo.  [PD-1923]

Philip and Lucy Bliss wedding photo.
[PD-1923]

On his wedding day, Philip wrote in his diary, “June 1, 1859 – married to Miss Lucy J. Young, the very best thing I could have done.” Lucy came from a family of devoted Christians who liked to sing.

A year after their marriage, Philip saw a newspaper ad he felt was the opportunity of a lifetime. It promised a six-week music course, to be taught in Genesco, New York, by some of the finest musical teachers in the country. Philip believed it was the training he needed to sharpen his skills. But he didn’t have the $30 to meet the cost.

Lucy’s grandmother noticed Philip’s state of distress. She mentioned an old stocking into which she’d been dropping extra pieces of silver. She told him if there was $30 in the stocking, it was his to further his musical training. When they checked, the coins exceeded the needed amount. Philip spent the next six weeks advancing his understanding of music.

MR. MOODY

D. L. Moody  [PD- 1923]

D. L. Moody
[PD- 1923]

After the training, Philip’s reputation as a teacher grew. He and Lucy moved to Chicago. Philip became increasingly involved in various opportunities to teach and lead music. He crossed paths with the evangelist D. L. Moody. Mr. Moody asked him to lead the music in some of his services. He eventually challenged Philip to surrender his talents completely to Christian service. The following songs Philip wrote prove what God can do with our abilities when submitted to serving Him.

“LET THE LOWER LIGHTS BE BURNING”   1871-     Philip wrote this song after hearing Mr. Moody relate a story he often told. A ship’s captain tried bringing his vessel into a harbor on Lake Erie during a storm. He saw the beam emanating from a lighthouse, but couldn’t see the lower lights of the harbor that revealed the dangerous rocks. The pilot’s best efforts couldn’t prevent the ship from crashing into the rocks. It destroyed the vessel, resulting in a number of deaths.

In telling the story, Mr. Moody concluded, “The Master will take care of the great light-house. Let us keep the lower lights burning.” Verse three of the hymn warns that without our spiritual lights, some “In the darkness may be lost.”

SONGS OF HOPE

“HOLD THE FORT” 1870-     When Philip entered full-time Christian service, he became the song leader for Daniel Whittle, a Civil War veteran who went by the title of Major Whittle. In a few years, the major would also become a hymn writer (“There Shall be Showers of Blessing”). A true-to-life sermon illustration by Major Whittle inspired Philip, just like a previous illustration from D. L. Moody had. During the Civil War, General Sherman assigned a troop to guard some supplies from Confederate attack. They soon found themselves being bombarded. They were sent a message commanding them to surrender. But another missive arrived from a different source. It read “Hold the Fort, for I am coming. Sherman.”

General Sherman arrives   [PD-1923]

General Sherman arrives
[PD-1923]

In the song’s chorus Philip says,  “‘Hold the fort, for I am coming,’ Jesus signals still; Wave the anser back to Heaven, ‘By Thy grace we will.'” Some have attacked the hymn, saying it suggests a church that’s barely hanging on, almost defeated. While one stanza does mention, “Mighty men around us falling, Courage almost gone!” the hymn resounds with triumphant phrases like “Victory is nigh,” “See the glorious banner waving!,” and “Cheer,  my comrades, cheer.” The hymn admits not near-defeat, but the reality of strong oppo-sition in our spiritual warfare, calling for an unwavering trust in help we can’t always see. The Civil War incident that inspired the hymn parallels the scripture Major Whittle used as his sermon text. Revelation 2:25 says to hold tightly to what we have until Jesus comes.

“IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL”  1876-    Chicago businessman Horatio Spafford and his wife, still grieving the loss of their son, suffered financial woe from the Chicago Fire. They agreed to take a trip to Europe to try to relax. Horatio sent his wife and four daughters to England ahead of him. When their ship collided with another one, more than 200 passen-gers died at sea. Mrs. Spafford sent a telegram from Wales that said, “Saved alone.” shortly thereafter, on his own trip across the atlantic Ocean, Horatio penned the words to “It is Well with My Soul.” A few years later, Philip added the fitting music.

CHILDREN’S SONGS

“JESUS LOVES EVEN ME”   1871-     Philip became the Sunday School superintendent of the church he and Lucy attended. He specialized in children’s hymns. He wrote this song one day while attending a religious service where the theme seemed to be the hymn “O How I Love Jesus.” Philip felt something was missing. He asked the question, “Shall I not rather sing of His great love for me?” Philip concludes the final verse with, “O if there’s only one song I can sing, When in His beauty I see the great King, This shall my song in eternity be: ‘O what a wonder that Jesus loves me!'”

"Daniel's Answer to the King" by Briton Riviere.            [PD-USA]

“Daniel’s Answer to the King” by Briton Riviere.
[PD-USA]

Another of his children’s hymns is “DARE TO BE A DANIEL,” published in 1873. The chorus is a rally cry to stand for your faith: “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone! Dare to have a purpose firm! Dare to make it known!”

A SPIRITUAL ANCHOR

Philip praised God in song for the most basic elements of the Christian faith. Let’s examine the words of three other hymns that get to the root of Christianity.

“WONDERFUL WORDS OF LIFE”   1874-     What do Jesus’ words to us do for us? Verse one answers: “Teach me faith and duty.” Verse two identifies Jesus’ invitation to sinful mankind as “Wooing us to Heaven.” Verse three states that they “Offer pardon and peace to all.”

“HALLELUJAH, WHAT A SAVIOR!”  1875-     The song identifies Jesus as dying for all; the song begins, ” ‘Man of Sorrows!’ what a name, For the Son of God, who came, Ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah, what a Savior!” But the hymn makes Jesus’ death on the cross personal as well. Philip used the words “In my place condemned He stood— Sealed my pardon with His blood: Hallelujah, what a Savior!””

Wood engraving of the Ashtabula Bridge disaster .  [PD-1923]

Wood engraving of the Ashtabula Bridge disaster .
[PD-1923]

“I WILL SING OF MY REDEEMER”    1876-     The words of this song were discovered with Philip’s belongings after his death. James McGranahan, who followed Philip as Major Whittle’s song leader, matched jubilant music to Philip’s words. What are the things Philip planned to sing out about Jesus? In verse one, it’s “On the cruel cross He suffered, From the curse to set me free.” In verse two, it’s “In His boundless love and mercy, He the ransom freely gave.” Verse three mentions “How the victory He giveth, Over sin and death and hell.” Verse four exults, “He from death to life hath bro’t me, Son of God with Him to be.”

Philip was considered the greatest hymn writer of his day, right behind Fanny Crosby. Some of his references seem more relevant to the 1800s, but the scriptural truths he used are timeless.

LET ME KNOW:  How has Philip’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.

Bibliography————————————————————————————————-

  • Masters, Peter. Men of Purpose. London, UK: Wakeman, 1973.
  • Osbeck, Kennth. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1982.
  • Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
  • Whittle, D. W., The Memoirs of P. P. Bliss (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1887): http://www.biblebelievers.com/bliss/memindex.html.

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About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
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