Of all the sweet singers given by the great Head to the Church militant, the late Philip P. Bliss was one of the chief; and his sudden removal to his eternal rest in our heavenly Father's home, on December 29th, 1876, proved a great loss to her, especially in the important field of evangelisation. "He, being dead, yet speaketh." His songs may be found in almost every part of the world; and though he himself has gone to join the choir above, and his place here is vacant, yet "his works follow him."
On July 9th, 1833, Philip Paul Bliss first saw the light. Both parents were pious, and this fact, no doubt, contribued largely to his future well-being, for he says, "I cherish this precious thought: My parents prayed for me, even before I knew the meaning of prayer, and consecrated me to the Lord and His service." When fourteen years old Philip professed faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. A revival was in progress in his Sunday school, and through this means he was brought in. Shortly after his conversion he became a Sunday school teacher, and continued such most of his life.
From the beginning, a love of song grew with his years; and this talent was developed and used for the glory of the God who had given it. "When a boy of ten years he heard a piano for the first time. He stood entranced. The power of combining harmonies was a revelation to him. He was then a poorly-clad, overgrown boy; and one day-going down the village, and passing by a house, he heard music, sweeter than anything he had ever listened to before. The door stood open, and he was irresistibly drawn towards the sweet sounds that came from within. Barefooted, he entered unobserved, and stood at the parlour door, listening and wondering, as a young lady played upon the piano. As she ceased playing, he exclaimed with an intense desire, 'Oh, lady, play some more.' She looked around surprised, and, with no appreciation of the tender heart that had been so touched by her music, ordered him away. Crushed in spirit he went forth, but with the memory of harmonies that seemed to him like heaven. But nature treated him not thus."
At the age of nineteen he received his first instruction in music, and went to the Collegiate Institute, where he learned harmony. The year afterwards he married Lucy I. Young, and, noting it in his diary, says, "The very best thing I could have done." She had become a disciple of Christ's when sixteen years of age, and Philip never regretted his choice.
What Mr. Bliss regarded as the most important event in his life occurred in 1869, viz., his meeting with and forming the acquaintance of D. L. Moody. It occurred in this way:
Mr. Moody was holding Gospel services in Chicago, and for half an hour preceding his meeting he was in the habit of speaking in the open air from the steps of the Court House near by. One Sunday evening Mr. Bliss and his wife went out for a walk before going to church, and came upon Moody's open-air meeting. He was attracted by the earnestness of the man, and when the invitation was given to go inside, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss decided they would go too. That night there was no leader for the singing, and the music was rather weak; Mr. Bliss, from the audience, helped on the singing, and thus attracted Mr. Moody's attention; and when the meeting was over, Moody had Bliss's history in two minutes, with a promise that he would come and help him with the singing. This was the commencement of their acquaintance, which only terminated with death, to be renewed in the land above, where partings shall not be known.
"Where in the world has such a man been kept," asked Mr. Moody, "that he has not before become known in Chicago? To think that such a singer should have been around here for the last four years, and we working here for Christ have not known him."
From this time dates his impression of the power of solo-singing in these evangelistic services—a power which cannot now be even questioned. Many have been led to decide for Christ through the singing of these hymns. Given a man with a sweet, clear voice, and a soul thoroughly given up to God, and there is a man whose power none can fix a limit to—second only to that of the God-given preacher of the Gospel or evangelist.
Shortly after this Mr. Bliss met with Major Whittle in Chicago, and very frequently they laboured together in the Gospel. It was while Mr. Bliss was the guest of the major that he wrote the song and music, "I am so glad that Jesus loves me," and also the hymn that perhaps is better known than any other, "Hold the Fort."
During the winter of 1873-4 Mr. Bliss received many letters from Mr. Moody (then in Scotland), urging him to give up his business and use his gifts exclusively in setting forth the Gospel. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss were ready to do this if they could see it as the call of God. Mrs. Bliss's characteristic remark was: "I am willing that Mr. Bliss should do anything that we can be sure is the Lord's will, and I can trust the Lord to provide for us; but I do not want him to take such a step simply on Mr. Moody's will." There was much prayer and much hesitation on Mr. Bliss's part in approaching a decision upon the matter. He doubted his ability to be useful in the work; doubted whether the drawing he felt toward it was of the Lord, or of his own inclination. Mr. Moody continued to write. One of his sentences was: "You have not faith. If you have not faith of your own on this matter, start out on my faith. Launch out into the deep." A solemn providence of God that occurred at this time deeply impressed Mr. Bliss. In November, 1874, a Christian brother and dear personal friend, Mr. H. G. Spafford, received a telegram from England, announcing the drowning of his four dear children in the loss of the "Ville de Havre." The telegram contained the two words, "Saved alone." His wife, who accompanied the children, had been rescued, and sent the despatch. These friends were dear to Mr. Bliss, and their affliction was a deep personal sorrow. Mr. Spafford himself joined in urging the counsel of Mr. Moody.
About this time Mr. Saunders, a minister, invited Mr. Bliss and Major Whittle to go to Waukegan for three or four meetings. The first meeting produced no marked results. Although it rained hard, the meeting on the second evening was twice as large. As Mr. Bliss sang his own "Almost Persuaded," with a heart yearning to bring wavering ones to decision for Christ, the impression was so irresistible that many arose while he sang, unable to withhold their craving for the help of prayer. That night there was the joy in Waukegan of those who had come to Christ with full purpose of heart, and had found the new bliss of accepting His love. Next day Mr. Bliss met two or three brethren for prayer, and formally surrendered everything to the Lord,—gave up his musical conventions, his writing of secular music; gave up everything,—and in a simple, child-like, trusting prayer, he placed himself, with any talent, any power God had given him, at the disposal of the Lord. This consecration meeting was followed by a wonderful gathering in the evening. Some twenty or more accepted Christ, and a spirit of deep conviction was upon many souls. Mr. Bliss was never heard to express a regret that he made this surrender. His income from his business at this time was good and growing, and his decision therefore involved the giving up of income, and to simply trust God for all means of support.
The next two years were spent in evangelising, and many and happy are the records of the various meetings.
Many of the hymns in "Songs and Solos" were written by Mr. Bliss, and they will be found to be exceptionally good and clear in their Scriptural statements of the Gospel, and abounding in reference to the Lord's coming as the blessed hope of the Church, which should ever find expression in the hymnology of the Church. Among many others of these might be noted "Hold the Fort," "Almost Persuaded," "I am so glad," "Whosoever will" (which was written after hearing an address by Mr. Henry Moorhouse), "Man of Sorrows," "Only an Armour-Bearer," "Free from the Law," "Look and Live." The last hymn he wrote was "I will sing of my Redeemer," which he sang, to music which he had composed for the hymn, with marvellous effect; but the music was lost in the disaster at Ashtabula, and the words were subsequently set to music by Mr. James McGranahan.
"From the time Mr. Moody met with Mr. Bliss dates his impression of the power of solo-singing in these evangelistic labours. At all events, such impressions as he had were crystallised at that time. Singing as an enjoyment was not the end that was sought.... Altogether, we may affirm that the vivid impression of the power of Christian song which Mr. Moody received when he heard Mr. Bliss, forms an epoch in the history of a movement that has been among the most blessed and remarkable in modern times, and has more or less changed the nature of religious meetings in all parts of Christendom. Thus Mr. Bliss wrote of this work:—
'This singing and talking about the good news of a present, perfect, free salvation, and justification by faith, is so popular and attractive, I do not believe I shall ever find time for anything else. It seems to me it is needed. How much of everything else we hear preached, and how little Gospel!'"
On "Wednesday evening, December 27, 1876, Mr. Bliss held his last meeting. He was full of the Holy Spirit, and sang with more than usual power. The last song, probably, that he sang upon earth was "Hold fast till I come." He prefaced his singing it by saying that it was one of the first occasions of its being sung, and that it might be the last hymn he should ever sing to them. The next afternoon (Thursday) he and Mrs. Bliss took train at Waverly for Chicago, where they expected to reach on Friday evening. (The following Sunday they were to sing in Mr. Moody's tabernacle.) Ten miles from Waverly the engine of the train broke, and they were detained three hours. This delay caused them to miss the connecting train for Chicago at Hornellsville; therefore, on arriving at the latter place, they decided to wait over for the night and go on in the morning, intending to arrive at Chicago on Saturday.
They entered the train, and joined the Chicago connection on Friday afternoon. The disaster, by which they went home to the Fatherland, occurred shortly before eight o'clock. It was the wildest winter night of the year. Three hours behind its time, the Pacific express, which had left New York the night before, struggled along through the drifts and the blinding storm. The train crept across the bridge at Ashtabula, Ohio; the leading engine had just reached solid ground, and its driver had just given it steam, when something in the undergearing of the bridge snapped. For an instant there was a confused crackling of beams and girders, ending with a tremendous crash, as the whole train, except the leading engine, broke through the framework and fell in a heap of crushed and splintered ruins at the bottom. For a moment there was silence, a stunned sensation among the survivors, who, in all stages of mutilation, lay piled among the dying and dead. Then arose the cries of the maimed and suffering; the few who remained unhurt hastening to escape from the shattered cars.
In less than ten minutes the whole train was on fire, and by midnight the destruction was complete. Morning came, and revealed a chaos of car wheels, axles, brake irons, truck frames, and twisted rails, lying in a black pool at the bottom of the gorge. The wood had completely burned away, and the ruins were covered with white ashes.
One of the survivors, who knew Mr. and Mrs. Bliss, states that "when the train fell Mr. Bliss succeeded in crawling through a window, supposing he could pull his wife after him; but she was jammed fast, and every effort of his was unavailing. The car was all jammed up, and the lady was caught in the ironwork of the seats. Finding that he could not save her, he stayed there with her and died."
The final end of this scene must be left under the mystery which shrouds it.
Memorial services were held in many churches in America, and tributes to his memory were offered by editors, clergymen, and musical writers all over the country. On the Sunday after the catastrophe Mr. Moody's tabernacle was draped in mourning. The multitude in that crowded church looked through their tears on Mr. Moody as he entered, broken-down under that weight of affliction. With a terrible struggle to keep back the sobs and tears, he rose and repeated the words, "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen in Israel?" He could add no more than a request for silent prayer.
In the after part of the day Mr. Sankey was able to sing two or three of Mr. Bliss's favourite songs; and then Mr. Moody gave an impressive address from the words, "Be ye also ready."
At a special meeting, held on the following Friday, it was stated that "Professor Bliss was seen, by a passenger whose life was spared, sitting in a car by the side of his wife with his open Bible on his knee, and both seemed intently engaged in the study of the sacred Word, while he was composing a Bible song which earth was never to hear;" and this is the last we know of them in the body.
The man has gone, but his songs remain, and are sung by thousands. May they go on and be increasingly useful, and be the means of leading many to Christ. May this condensed biography stir up the readers of it to the same devotion that inspired Philip P. Bliss.
The materials for this sketch...are taken, by the kind permission of the publishers, Messrs Morgan & Scott, from an excellent memoir, entitled "P. P. Bliss: His Life and Life Work," which we urge our readers to add to their libraries.
From Footsteps of Truth edited by C. Russell Hurditch. Vol. 2 (June 1884). London: J. F. Shaw & Co, ©1884.
>> More P. P. Bliss