One of the saddest things connected with the whole calamity, and the circumstance which made the event a personal bereavement to many thousands of people, was the death of Mr. P. P. Bliss and his wife.
His name will always be associated with Ashtabula in the sad memories of that hour. Yet there are brighter visions connected with that name, which have a tendency to relieve the gloom of that whole calamity.
The very mention of those loved persons brings up the memory of their sweet songs. These songs may be supposed to echo in the air, and to mingle with all the mourning, so as to give almost a melody to the melancholy sounds. It is, indeed, a plaintive song. Yet there is a hopeful, soul-thrilling strain running through it all.
The memory of the sweet singer is a joyful, happy one, bringing delightful associations to the minds of all who knew him. Few persons ever endeared themselves to so many people in so short a life; but his spirit delighted others with its very sweetness.
The early days of Mr. Bliss were spent in toil. His parents were in humble circumstances, and while yet a youth, his father died, leaving him to meet the obstacles of life with only the counsel of his mother, whom he loved, but dependent on his own exertion for a livelihood. For a time the young man was engaged as a hired hand upon a farm. His home was at this time in the western part of Pennsylvania, where also, he received a partial education as a pupil of the collegiate institution at Towanda, Pa. [Note: Towanda, PA is in Bradford Co., in northeastern Pennsylvania—see also Birthplace of Philip P. Bliss.]
After a short period of study he went to Rome, Pa., and taught a district school. Here he met the lady who became his wife and to whom he ascribed the main part of his success. She was the daughter of O. F. Young, Esq., of Rome, an Elder in the Presbyterian Church. He used to say to his friends, "All I am, I owe to my wife." Under the influence received from her, he entered upon the study of music, and first felt the stirrings of that gift which made him so useful. Together they went to Prof. Root's Normal Academy at Geneseo, N.Y., where he made great advancement in music, and won the admiration of his gifted teacher.
It was, however, in Chicago, that his musical career really began; but it is a singular fact that fire was the element that brought out the genius of the man, as well as that in which his spirit was released from his body, and borne to higher realms.
He often remarked that it was the great [Chicago] fire which made him, because it liberated him from secular occupations, and led him to devote himself to the Lord's work. At the time, he was in the employ of the firm of Root & Cady, but the flames which laid in ruins the great city, also swept away his house, and from that event forward he seemed to have no home except where the service of song might lead him. He became connected with Rev. Dr. Goodwin's church as chorister and superintendent, and there, he won all hearts, not only by his singing, but by his remarkable devotion as a Christian.
The choir meetings were always opened with prayer; he spoke and wrote personally to the members of the choir on the subject of religion; and he trained and improved them so that they sung from the impulse of loving and pious hearts. Dr. Goodwin bears testimony to his usefulness in this position, and says that Mr. Bliss' services in the choir, rendered his ministry more earnest, pleasant and fruitful.
It was, however, in connection with the precious revival work that the genius of Mr. Bliss was brought to that higher flight which gave such a broad influence, and caused his song to be heard throughout the land. About six years ago, Major Whittle and he first ventured out in the gospel work. It was then that he began to put words to music, both of which had sprung from the deep melody of his own heart.
At a meeting held in Rockford, Ill., a story was told which thrilled him with its interest, and under the inspiration of it, he with a glowing heart, composed that noble song, "Hold the Fort," which has done so much to arouse and cheer the Christian people in every land.
From this time his own hymns inspired the melody which he sang. There was the inspiration of a heart full of love, united to a voice rich and expressive of emotion. "The effect of his singing was wonderful." "Melting in the fervor of his emotion, with tears filling his eyes, he sang his modest lyrics until every heart owned the spell." He was the author of the most popular songs used in the Moody and Sankey meetings. Any one who has heard these, may know what power they have had in molding character, and in stirring souls to a lofty devotion.
The hymns "What Shall the Harvest Be," "Whosoever Will," "More to Follow," "That Will Be Heaven for Me," "Almost Persuaded," were written by his pen, and the music inspired by his genius.
He also wrote the music of many other of the favorite hymns which have been sung by so many thousands. He wrote many of his songs upon the sudden inspiration of some incident. For instance, when Mr. Moody at one of his meetings told the story of the wreck of the steamer at Cleveland, and had said that it was because the lights on the pier were not burning, he was thrilled with the anecdote, and impressed with the truth it illustrated, at once wrote out that beautiful song, "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning," and set it to music.
For the last three years, Mr. Bliss has given himself to the work of composing and singing for the revival meetings. This was done through the earnest persuasions of Mr. Moody. His success was very great. It was said at his funeral that probably no other man has ever reached so many hearts by song as he. Mr. Moody said: "This man who has died so young, his hymns are now sung around the world. Only a few days ago a book came to me from China, and there were his hymns—his hymns translated into Chinese. They are going into all the world—all around the world."
Rev. Dr. Goodwin said that it was a joyful thought that, though dead, the brother's work had just begun.
A little time ago a friend from South Africa had written how he stopped for a night's rest in the Zulu country, when Brother Bliss' song, "Hold the Fort," burst upon his ear from a company of natives. Just so his influence for good would spread and increase.
Some of his songs seem to be almost prophetic of his death. The last one which he sang in the Tabernacle just before starting for the East was one which will always be associated with his name:
I know not the hour when my Lord will come
To take me away to His own dear home,
But I know that His presence will lighten the gloom,
And that will be glory for me!
I know not the song that the angels sing,
I know not the sound of the harp's glad ring,
But I know there'll be mention of Jesus our King,
And that will be music for me.
I know not the form of my mansion fair,
I know not the name that I then shall bear,
But I know that my Saviour will welcome me there,
And that will be heaven for me.
Another has been spoken of by a friend as also prophetic even of the manner of his death, although it was composed on the occasion of that other fire which consumed his home and the homes of thousands of others in the doomed city. It reads:
Hark! the alarm, the clang of the bells!
Signal of danger, it rises and swells!
Flashes like lightning illumine the sky,
See the red glare as the flames mount on high!
Chorus—Roll on, roll on, O billows of fire!
Dash with the fiery waves higher and higher;
Ours is a mission abiding and sure—
Ours is a kingdom eternal, secure.
On like a fiend in its towering wrath,
On, and destruction alone points the path;
Mercy, O heaven! the sufferers wail;
Feeble humanity naught can avail.
The manner of Mr. Bliss' death was remarkable. He had been with his wife to the home of his parents in Towanda, Pa., where his children were staying, but as he had an appointment at Chicago for the Sabbath, he hastened to return.
Kissing the children a last farewell he left Rome, Pa., and took the Erie train at Waverly, for Chicago. His last stop was at Hornellsville, where the strange presentiments came upon him which were so near to persuading him to forsake the ill-fated train and take another route.
Then came that ride over the Lake Shore and the awful plunge into the chasm at Ashtabula. His wife was with him. " United in life they were not divided in death."
It is said that but a short time before, the good man was seen reading his Bible, and at the hour of his death was quietly composing a hymn. The two died together as the fatal flames approached, giving their lives as a song which should reach the better land.
Like martyrs they died singing their songs of faith, at least in their hearts, and together sharing the baptism of fire.
Memorial services were held in the Tabernacle at Chicago, where he was expected on the following Sabbath, at which Mr. Moody, Mr. Sankey, Rev. Dr. Goodwin, and Rev. Dr. Thompson took part. The Tabernacle was appropriately draped and the exercises were very impressive.
The funeral services were held at Towanda, Pa., the home of his mother, on Sabbath. January 7th. Rev. Dr. Goodwin, of Chicago, preached the sermon, and Major D. W. Whittle gave an address full of interesting reminiscences, which brought tears to the eyes of many. At its close Mr. Bliss' last hymn, found among his papers and entitled "He Knows," was sung, "it breathed the full spirit of his life."
So I go on in the dark, not knowing—
I would not if I might—
I would rather walk with God in the dark
Than walk alone in the light;
I would rather walk with Him by faith
Than walk alone by sight.
Rev. Dr. Goodwin in speaking of this funeral, afterward said that he thanked God he had the privilege of going to it. "Not a shadow had come over his face or the face of the friends whom he went to see.
"There was the gray-haired grandmother of eighty-three years, her face already shining with the light of the Heaven to which she was so near. When the news was told her she said, 'Only a step has Philip gone in advance of me.' The parents of Mrs. Bliss walked calm, without a murmur, through the valley of the shadow.
"Of the thirty or forty relatives, with but one exception, all, old and young, accepted Jesus Christ as the foundation upon which they stood. The faces of these bereaved ones shone as faces never shine till God comes into the heart and banishes sorrow.
"Who ever saw a funeral service turned to an inquiry meeting? Yet at that service twenty-five persons avowed their determination to serve God, and at the evening service ten or fifteen more did the same."
Another memorial service was also held at Chicago on January 15th, at Rev. Dr. Goodwin's church, where Mr. Bliss began his public life as a singer, and where his memory is cherished tenderly, affectionately.
The large church was crowded, nearly three thousand people present. His pastor on this occasion paid tribute to the character of his friend. He said:
1st. "He was one of the most hopeful men I ever knew. His life was unclouded, or at least the clouds came not to tarry. Not that he was exempt from trouble. He had his share of trial, discipline, and disappointment. He knew what it was to be misapprehended—to have mean and selfish motives imputed. He knew what it was to stand by the bedside of one who was dearer to him than life, whom he expected might at any time be called away. But his mind was in the promises of God. His heart was above the clouds and was assured of the truth. Mr. Bliss will be better known in the future as the singing pilgrim.
"As he went on in the Christian life the Hallelujah grew more frequent. There are few of his songs, wherever they begin, which do not before they close, land us in the glory of the Heavenly Land. Take even 'Light in the Darkness, Sailor.' The last verse begins, 'Bright glorious the morning, Sailor,' and it ends with a 'Glory, Hallelujah.'
The second feature of his character was his peculiar benevolence.
"I know not what proportion he set aside, but I have known the fund to amount to $1,000 in six months. He was unselfish in everything. His devotion was always fervent. When our old church was burning, Mr. Bliss, pointed to the cross that surmounted the gable and to the great front window illuminated by the flames and asked a member of the Sunday-school, 'Why will you not come over to us on the side of the cross? It never looked to me more beautiful than it does now, high above the flames, surrounded by stars, and it is certain to have the victory.'
"All these features culminated in the last trait. He was the gospel singer of the age.
"Why is it that while so many hymns pass out of mind, some, like 'Rock of Ages.' 'Just as I am,' 'Jesus, Lover of my Soul,' have become the hymns of the Christian church? Is it not because the words of God's truth, and especially of the Gospel, are in them? You do not read John Wesley's sermons but you sing Charles Wesley's hymns. Recall some of Mr. Bliss' hymns,—'I am so glad that Jesus loves me,' 'No other name is given.' There is not in the range of English hymnology one writer who put God's truth into song with the power and sweetness that Mr. Bliss has.
"You remember the story of Mr. Latimer, how he wandered drunk into the Tabernacle and was so aroused by Mr. Sankey singing, 'What shall the harvest be.'
"Throngs and throngs are yet to go up from this world to testify that the songs inspired of God while Mr. Bliss was on his knees led them to Christ."
The "Advance," of Chicago, contains the following: "It takes much from the sadness of the singer's awful death that his life was so rounded and complete. His work had been so well done that death could not surprise him and find him with his mission unaccomplished. He had made his mark, and the mark will remain. His life has stopped, but his work goes on; in every church and in every home all over the world, and years from now, when even his name may be lost, his songs will still continue to inspire faltering men and women with courage, to bring consolation into the house of mourning, to arouse faith in the human heart. For such a life, so perfect, so successful, so far-reaching in its influences, spent in the most beneficent of labor and lost at the post of duty, there should be no tears. Other voices will take up his strains, and the work will go on without stop. Their simple beauty is not marred, nor is their wonderful influence upon the popular heart lessened by his death. Noble and impressive in his physique, affable and genial in his contact with every one, earnest and untiring in his work, he will long be missed as a leader in the evangelical movement which is now stirring the popular heart; but he has left his impress upon the world, with results more lasting than the work achieved by heroes of the battlefield or masters of state-craft. His harp is forever silent; his voice is forever hushed; but the songs which he sang can never die. Their melody, like the brook, goes on forever."
From The Ashtabula Disaster by Stephen D. Peet. Chicago: J. S. Goodman, ©1877.
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