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Philip Paul Bliss

P. P. BlissPhilip Paul Bliss was the author, under God, of a large part of the most popular hymns and music that were used by the two American evangelists [D. L. Moody and Major Whittle] in their mighty labors for awakening and evangelizing the English world. By general acceptation, he has been hailed as the Charles Wesley of the Nineteenth century. Mr. Moody, in a loving tribute to the beauty of his life and character, testifies: "I believe he was raised up of God to write hymns for the Church of Christ in this age, as Charles Wesley was for the church in his day. His songs have gone around the world, and have lead and will continue to lead hundreds of souls to Christ. In my estimation, he was the most highly honored 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, giving praise to God for the grace manifested in him, while life lasts."

The ancestors of P. P. Bliss were emigrants from Wales, and were numbered among the early settlers of Connecticut, where their first marriage record dated back to 1670. His grandfather settled in the wilderness of Saratoga county, New York, in 1788. His father, Isaac, whom his son calls "the best man I ever knew," was a poor man, but a devout, simple-hearted Puritan; a trustful, joyful, singing saint. Philip was born in the log homestead, in Clearfield county, Pennsylvania, on the 9th of July, 1838. When he was six years old, his father removed to Trumbull county, Ohio, and returned into Pennsylvania three years later, settling finally in Tioga county. Thus the boy passed his earlier years in frontier clearings, where the opportunities for schooling were very scanty. He lived much under the open sky, amid the inspiring scenes of a mountainous district, and as a rambler through the forest and by the torrents. As a child, it delighted him to take part with his father in singing some of the grand old revival hymns, such as "Come ye sinners poor and needy," and "Come, ye that love the Lord." He could easily master a new tune, and whistle it, or thrum it out on some hand-made instrument. At the age of eleven, he set out from home to work on a farm, carrying his spare clothing tied up in a handkerchief. Four years later he was in a lumber-camp cutting logs, and soon after, he was engaged in a saw-mill. Meanwhile, the spare time in every season found him a diligent scholar in the district school, for he was eagerly desirous of acquiring an education. At the age of eighteen, his studious habits and manliness of character led to his appointment as a teacher at Hartsville, Alleghany county, New York. Two years later, he taught in the academy at Rome, Pennsylvania.

At Rome, he became acquainted with Miss Lucy J. Young, then aged eighteen, and they were married on the 1st of June, 1859. Major Whittle in his appreciative Memoir, to which we are much indebted in this sketch thus outlines the personality of this young and happy pair: "Mrs. Bliss was in many things the opposite and the complement of her husband. He was by nature poetical, impulsive, demonstrative, easily moved; she was strongly practical, reticent, and with great adherence of purpose. She was both wife and mother to him from the first of their union. She was of a deep nature, loving, tender in her affection, beyond what most who knew her gave her credit for. His buoyant, joyful, affectionate, warm-hearted demonstrativeness naturally made her more reserved manner seem constrained; but all who learned to know her loved and admired her, and thanked God that Philip Bliss had such a wife.

Mrs. Bliss was already a member of the Presbyterian church, and her husband united himself to the same congregation, while also serving as superintendent of a union Sunday-school in Rome. His actual conversion however, must be antedated many years. Indeed, he appears to have been a child of God when very young, as his personal experience was that he could never remember the time when he did not love the Savior. At the age of twelve, he had openly confessed Christ, and had been baptized in the creek at Ells Run by a Baptist minister.

Mr. Bliss' wealth at the time of his marriage consisted almost wholly of a sound mind in a sound body. His active life had secured him a stalwart and fine physique, while his handsome features, spirited eyes, and emotional nature gave promise of powers of mentality as yet undeveloped. For a year, he worked on the farm of his father-in-law, for the ordinary wages of thirteen dollars a month.

His passion for music had been intensified by an attendance at a musical convention held in Rome, by W. B. Bradbury, in 1857, and he was now earnestly desirous of qualifying himself to become a teacher of music. The opportunity of attending a summer session of six weeks at the "Normal Academy of Music," held at Geneseo, N. Y., in 1860, was afforded him through the sympathy of his wife's grandmother, who emptied out for him the silver savings of a good many years. He profited so well by this start that he was able in the following winter to become a professional music teacher, while his summers were still spent in working on the farm. So passed tranquilly and happily, some years of unconscious training for the Lord's service. Mr. Bliss was diligent in continuing his studies, and prospered so that he was able to save a few hundred dollars. With this money he bought a little cottage, and removed his aged parents from the backwoods to his own home. Here his humble-minded father spent the last years of his life, thanking God for giving him a better home on earth than he had ever expected to have.

Mr. Bliss wrote his first musical composition in the summer of 1864. It was a song of tender sentiment, entitled "Lora Vale," and was published in sheet form by Root & Cady, of Chicago. Its popularity led to his venture before the public in a series of concerts, in which he achieved a fair success. In December, 1865, being then aged twenty-seven, he was permanently engaged by the firm of Root & Cady, and removed his family to Chicago. "He went to work," records Mr. Geo. F. Root, "first about the State, holding musical conventions and giving concerts, and attending to the interests of certain parts of our business; sending to us occasional communications for our musical paper, and occasional compositions. I do not recall particulars about these compositions. I only know that it was my pleasure to look them over and suggest, if I could, improvements, or hint at faults now and then, especially in the earlier ones. I say my pleasure, for never had teacher so teachable and docile a subject for criticism (I can hardly say pupil, for I never taught him regularly), nor one who repaid with such generous affection the small services that were in this way rendered to him. I do not know of his modes or habits of composition, but do know of his wonderful fertility and facility. His responses to the calls for the many kinds of literary and musical work that we soon found he could do always surprised us as much by their promptness as by their uniform excellence. It was lovely to see how near to all he did was his religion. There was for him no line on one side of which was a bright face and on the other a solemn one. His smile went into his religion and his religion into his smile." And Mr. F. W. Root, another associate, describes his personal and mental gifts as wonderful. "His faculty for seizing upon the salient features of whatever came under his notice amounted to an unerring instinct. The one kernel of wheat in a bushel of chaff was the first thing he saw. Examine the work which really enlisted his whole soul, and you will see nothing but keen discernment, rare taste, and great verbal facility. His gospel hymns contain no pointless verses, awkward rhythms, or forced rhymes, but, on the contrary, they glow with all that gives life to such composition, .... Mr. Bliss' voice was always a marvel to me. He used occasionally to come to my room, requesting that I would look into his vocalization with a view to suggestions. At first a few suggestions were made, but latterly I could do nothing but admire. Beginning with E flat, or even D flat below, he would, without apparent effort, produce a series of clarion tones, in an ascending series, until having reached the D (fourth line tenor clef) I would look to see him weaken and give up, as would most bass singers; but no, on he would go, taking D sharp, E, F, F sharp and G, without weakness, without throatiness, without a sound of straining, and without the usual apoplectic look of effort. I feel quite safe in saying that his chest range was from D flat below to A flat above, the quality being strong and agreeable throughout and one vowel as good as another. He would have made name and fortune on the dramatic stage, had he chosen that profession and studied a more scientific class of music than that in which he chose to work."

Several years elapsed after his removal to the West before Mr. Bliss became directly connected with Christian efforts. He first met Mr. Moody in the summer of 1869, and henceforth gave what musical aid he could find time for in his various meetings. A year later he became leader of the choir of the First Congregational Church of Chicago, of which Rev. Dr. Goodwin was pastor. His principle of action in that position has been thus stated by that minister: "He believed that all who led in the service of song should sing with grace in their hearts; that the music should be strictly spiritual music—not selections made on grounds of taste, high musical character, but selections aimed at honoring God, exalting Jesus Christ, magnifying his gospel; music, in a word, that God's Spirit could wholly own and use to comfort, strengthen, and inspire God's people, and lead unsaved souls to Christ. Accordingly the highest devotional character marked all his selections, all his rehearsals, all his leadership in the Lord's house." As superintendent of its Sunday-school, he exercised an astonishing influence over children, winning their sympathy and hearts by the power of genial love, and leading very many to accept Jesus as their Savior. His addresses were terse, pointed, and illustrated with vivid anecdotes, so that young and old could not fail to be impressed by the spiritual truths sought to be conveyed. At this period he prepared his books of song. "The Charm, a Collection of Sunday-school Music," was published in 1871. "The Song Tree," a collection of parlor and concert music, appeared in 1872; "Sunshine for Sunday Schools," in 1873; and "The Joy," for conventions and church choirs, in 1873.

In the winter of 1873-4, repeated solicitations from Mr. Moody, who was then busied in Scotland, induced Major D. W. Whittle and P. P. Bliss to prayerfully consider the duty and privilege of surrendering all their business prospects and consecrating themselves unreservedly as evangelists to the service of the Master. After waiting on the Lord for guidance, they set forth in faith to test the reality of their call by a series of three evening meetings at Waukegan, Illinois. The first was but poorly attended; the second, though the night was stormy, had twice as many listeners, and a number began to inquire the way to be saved. The next afternoon these yoke-fellows spent some hours in prayer, and made a complete surrender of themselves to the Lord. Bliss gave up all his professional engagements, the certain prospect of attaining a high reputation, an easy competence, and a settled home. Whittle resigned a salary of five thousand dollars in the Chicago office of the Elgin Watch Company. Together they committed their ways unto God, that he might use them for the good of their countrymen. During that year they visited towns in Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as Detroit and Pittsburgh. In 1875, they labored in Chicago, Louisville, and Lexington, Nashville, and Memphis, St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Milwaukee. In 1878 they were called to Racine and Madison, in Wisconsin; St. Louis, Mobile, Montgomery, and Selma, in Alabama; Augusta, Georgia; Kalamazoo and Jackson, Michigan; and Peoria, Illinois.

For this life mission of evangalization, Mr. Bliss prepared "Gospel Songs, a Choice Collection of Hymns and Tunes, New and Old." These were selected in the spirit of prayer, and include only those which revival experiences had proven to be blessed. Most of them were naturally from his own inspired pen. It appears undeniable that he was the Christian Psalmist of this century, the one providentially raised up "to lengthen the cords and strengthen the stakes" of Zion in this gospel awakening. In the preparation of "Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs," in 1875, he was a co-editor with Mr. Sankey; and the like fraternal co-operation was exhibited in "Gospel Hymns No. 2," issued in time for the services at Boston. Of these little books millions of copies were sold. Yet, in order to remove every ground for a popular misapprehension that the evangelists were intent on money-making, he waived his share in the copyrights. Thus fully sixty thousand dollars of royalty, which belonged of right to Sankey and Bliss, were bestowed on deserving charities. Even the little proportion of five thousand dollars, which Mr. Moody sought later to urge upon him for the purchase of a home for his family, was steadfastly declined.

This joyous and versatile singer, musician and speaker peculiarly excelled as the poet of Gospel song. His genius, as clarified by the indwelling spirit, possessed the rare faculty of embodying the deepest and most solemn truths or God's Word, and the spiritual experiences of the Christian's heart, in hymns of such crystal transparency that the sinner and the child of God alike could receive into their souls a profound realization of the sacredness and the lovableness of the messages of the gospel. "After his consecration to Christ for his service in saving souls," relates Major Whittle, "Mr. Bliss' experience crystalized more and more into an apprehension of a personal Savior. Christ risen—Christ ever present with us; Jesus, the real, living, personal Jesus of the gospels, came closer and closer to him. His communion with Christ was uninterrupted. And his songs in these days abounded with Christ. The last year of his life, nearly all the songs he wrote contain the three themes of gospel testimony: Christ died for our sins; he lives for our justification, he is coming again in a glory which we are to share. He did not plan these hymns with any purpose to teach these truths, and was surprised himself when his attention was called to the fact of the uniformity of their testimony in these directions. He simply wrote of what filled his own heart and had come to his own soul." Mr. Sankey, whose opportunities for passing a judgment are unrivaled, writes: "The first of Mr. Bliss' hymns that became popular in Great Britain was, 'Jesus Loves Even Me,' and more than any other hymn, it became the key-note of our meetings there. The next song which became immensely popular was, 'Hold the Fort,' and it is to-day, perhaps, the most popular sacred song in England or America. I should think Mr. Bliss' 'Almost Persuaded' has won more souls to the Savior than any other hymn written by him."

"Hold the Fort" was founded on an incident of the late war [Civil War, United States], 'which has been thus graphically described by Mr. Moody: "I am told that when General Sherman went through Atlanta towards the sea—through the Southern States—he left in the fort on the Kenesaw Mountain a little handful of men to guard some rations that he brought there. And General Hood got into the outer rear and attacked the fort, drove the men in from the outer works into the inner works, and for a long time the battle raged fearfully. Half of the men were either killed or wounded; the general who was in command was wounded seven different times; and when they were about ready to run up the white flag and surrender the fort, Sherman got within fifteen miles, and through the signal corps on the mountaln he sent the message: 'Hold the fort; I am coming. W. T. Sherman.' That message fired up their hearts, and they held the fort till reinforcements came, and the fort did not go into the hands of their enemies." It was first narrated in public by Major Whittle in 1870, and was at once popularized by his companion. Six years later these yoke-follows visited Kenesaw Mountain, where they read the promises of the Lord's second coming, knelt in prayer, and then united in singing this battle-hymn of the Christian.

"Let the Lower Lights be Burning" had its origin in this sad accident: "A few years ago at the mouth of Cleveland harbor there were two lights, one at each side of the bay, called the upper and lower lights; and to enter the harbor safely by night, vessels must sight both of the lights. These western lakes are more dangerous sometimes than the great ocean. One wild, stormy night, a steamer was trying to make her way into the harbor. The captain and pilot were anxiously watching for the lights. By and by the pilot was heard to say, 'Do you see the lower lights?' 'No,' was the reply; 'I fear we have passed them.' 'Ah, there are the lights,' said the pilot; 'and they must be, from the bluff on which they stand, the upper lights. We have passed the lower lights, and have lost our chance of getting into the harbor.' What was to be done? They looked back, and saw the dim outline of the lower lighthouse against the sky. The lights had gone out. 'Can't you turn your head around' 'No; the night is too wild for that. She won't answer to her helm.' The storm was so fearful that they could do nothing. They tried again to make for the harbor, but they went crash against the rocks, and sank to the bottom. Very few escaped; the great majority found a water grave. Why? Simply because the lower lights had gone out. Now with us the upper lights are all right. Christ himself is the upper light, and we are the lower lights, and the cry to us is, Keep the lower lights burning; that is what we have to do. He will lead us safe to the sunlit shore of Canaan, where there is no more night."

"More to Follow" was derived from another story told by Mr. Moody. A rich man in Rowland Hill's congregation wanted to help a poor member, and so he sent some money to a friend to be used wisely for his benefit. "The friend just sent him five pounds, and said in the note: 'This is thine; use it wisely; there is more to follow.' After a while he sent another five pounds and said, 'More to follow.' Again and again he sent the money to the poor man, always with the cheering words, 'More to follow.' So it is with the wonderful grace of God. There is always' more to follow."'

"Whosoever Will May Come," which was written in the winter of 1869-70, sprang from the memorable sermons of Henry Morehouse upon that inexhaustible text: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."—John 3:16.

"Jesus Loves Even Me" was composed in June, 1870. Mr. Bliss at the time said that he was tired of singing of his poor love to God, and he now wished to sing of God's wonderful love for him. He further remarked to Major Whittle "that the peace and comfort of a Christian were not founded upon his loving Christ, but upon Christ's love for him, and that to occupy the mind with Christ's love would produce love and consecration in keeping with Romans 5:5: "The love of God [to us] is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost, which is given to us."

"Almost Persuaded" was suggested by the closing words of a sermon by Rev. Mr. Brundage: "He who is almost persuaded is almost saved; but to be almost saved is to be entirely lost."

"Pull for the Shore, Sailor" sprang from the tale of a wreck, which went down just after the captain and sixteen sailors were taken off by a life boat. "When the life-boat came to you," asked a friend, "did you expect it had brought some tools to repair your old ship?" "Oh, no," was the reply, "she was a total wreck; two of her masts were gone, and if we had stayed mending her only a few minutes, we must have gone down." "When once off the old wreck and safe in the life-boat, what remained for you to do?" "Nothing, but just to pull for the shore."

The death of P. P. Bliss and his wife was almost like a translation to heaven by a chariot of fire. That Christian poet was permitted to spend several weeks with Moody and Sankey in Chicago, and to edit "Gospel Hymns No. 2" with the latter. At that time he agreed with Major Whittle to resume their places on their departure, and also to visit England later. He passed Christmas with his mother and sister at Towanda, Pennsylvania, and then hastened toward Chicago with Mrs. Bliss, leaving their two little sons at Rome, [Pennsylvania]. But that railroad train of eleven cars crashed through the bridge over Ashtabula river on the night of December 29, and fell down seventy feet, a shapeless mass. They were in the first parlor car, and were either crushed at once or else consumed by the conflagration that arose from the stoves. The most diligent search failed to recover their remains. Our whole nation sympathized with the evangelists at Chicago in their great sorrow. The Sunday schools joined in a spontaneous collection for the benefit of the orphaned children, and $10,000 was collected in a few weeks.

From "The Gospel Awakening"... edited by L. T. Remlap [pseud.]. Chicago: Fairbanks and Palmer Pub. Co., ©1883.

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