Friday, Dec. 29, 1876, was the last day that dawned upon the earthly life of "The sweet singer of Israel," P. P. Bliss. On the day previous Mr. Bliss and his wife left their mother's home, Rome, Pa., where they had been making a Christmas visit, and started for Chicago, when Mr. Bliss and Major D. W. Whittle were to continue, in the great Tabernacle, the evangelistic work begun by Moody and Sankey. As he rode he busied himself with Bible and paper, composing a new song which perished with him.
When within about twelve hours ride of Chicago, the train on which they were traveling was wrecked by the fearful "Ashtabula disaster," words that will ring like a funeral knell in many lives for years to come. By the giving way of the bridge which spanned the Ashtabula River the whole train was precipitated into the ice-bound stream below. The cars were soon in flames, and the devastating elements of fire and water, adding their fury to the wild storm that was raging at the time, rendered the scene one of untold horror. The only circumstance connected with the death of Mr. and Mrs. Bliss that can be ascertained is that Mr. Bliss, after escaping out of a window of a car was burned to death on going back to rescue his wife.
At the meeting held in memory of Mr. Bliss in Chicago on the following Sunday, the fact was recalled with a sad interest that the last time he had sung in the Moody and Sankey meetings he had said, "I don't know as I shall ever sing here again, but I want to sing this as the language of my heart," and then had sung that song of his:
"I know not the hour 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."
At the time of his death Mr. Bliss was in the very prime and vigor of manhood, being thirty-eight years of age.
His boyhood and early manhood were spent in northwest Pennsylvania.
In the year 1864, Mr. George F. Root of Chicago, the well-known music publisher, learning of his musical ability—both as a composer and leader, engaged his services. Mr. Bliss then removed to Chicago, and for nearly ten years went out into different parts of the West to conduct Normal Musical Institutes. He was also engaged during this time in composing Sunday-school music, the first of which appealed in 1870 in a book edited and published by Mr. George F. Root, entitled, "The Prize."
These were days of beginnings and of trials in the life of Mr. Bliss and his wife. Yet they styled their humble home "The Kot o' Kontent" and gave a cheery welcome to the friends who visited them.
In 1871 Mr. Bliss' first book, "The Charm," appeared and at once gave him a place among the favorite composers of Sunday-school music. About this time he was elected to the position of chorister in the First Congregational Church of Chicago (Rev. Dr. Goodwin's), of which he had become a member, on coming to Chicago, having previously been a Methodist. He was also chosen superintendent of the large Sunday-school of that church, very many of whose members were led to Christ by his influence. Frequent demands were now made upon him to sing at dedications, anniversaries and Sunday-school gatherings. On these occasions he gave his services whenever time would permit. His Normal Musical work still continued and in 1872 he published a collection of new songs, duets, trios and quartets, entitled "The Song Tree." The design of the book is beautifully expressed in the following acrostic preface:
"Sing away dreariness,
Tree of my love:
Oh, and to weariness
Rest May'st thou prove;
Nobly endeaver the
Erring to win
Guarding forever from
Evil and sin."
Subsequently appeared "Sunshine," a book for Sunday-schools and "The Joy," for classes, choirs and conventions.
Mr. Bliss at length resigned his position as chorister and his work as a musical leader, with much pecuniary sacrifice, in order to give himself wholly to evangelistic work. In a letter to a friend dated "May 13, 1874," when he was just starting to a Musical Institute, he says:
"Do you know Brother Moody, Whittle, and others are after me to sing Gospel hymns in evangelistic work. Shall I? Where can I accomplish most? Pray that I may make no mistake."
He decided to go into this work, and two months later wrote to the same friend:
"Major Whittle and I are holding protracted meetings. God is wonderfully using us in every way. Help us to praise him for it. I am preparing a book of "Gospel Songs" for our special use, and would be right glad to have you send a list of hymns and tunes which have been most successful in your experience. And above all, pray for the book. All the good in the book must come from God."
This book, "Gospel Songs," was published in 1874 with the following acrostic preface which truly represents its deep spiritual purpose:
"God so loved the world that he gave his
Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not
Perish, but have
"Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence
O Lord, open thou my lips and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name, give glory.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.
Sing unto the Lord, bless his name, show forth his salvation from day to day."
Since July 1874 Mr. Bliss has been engaged earnestly and almost constantly in evangelistic work in connection with Major Whittle. The following slip which has sometimes been distributed as an invitation to their meetings shows how they shared the work: invitation
Mr. Bliss held these evangelistic meetings in company with Major Whittle, at Mobile, Atlanta, Nashville, Louisville, Chicago, Peoria, Kalamazoo, Jackson, and many other places, and always with great success.
Mr. Bliss sang as earnest ministers preach, not for artistic effects but to express and impress the Gospel. In his singing he was putting in practice what he so often exhorted upon others in his song:
"Let the lower lights be burning,
Send a gleam across the wave;
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save."
His songs in these "Gospel meetings" were frequently prefaced with a short and earnest prayer by himself or by the reading or repeating of Scripture passages in the audience.
The following brief remarks, made by Mr. Bliss at "The Sunday-school Parliament," on Wellesley Island in the St. Lawrence River, during the summer of 1876, show his high estimate of sacred music:
"That which ought to have the greatest emphasis just now in regard to sacred music is the need of greater reverence. While a song is being sung, people will pass up a church aisle or a Sunday-school aisle, whisper to each other, move about the room, distribute or collect library books, put on overcoats, or do a score of other things that one would never think of doing during any other kind of prayer. When we are offering praise or prayer to God in metre, as much as if we were doing it upon our knees, a reverence of manner and spirit should accompany it. Another thing to be enforced in connection with singing is a greater thoughtfulness in regard to the meaning of what we sing. Are the words prayer? Or praise? Let appropriate thought as well as appropriate melody accompany the words."
Mr. Bliss is known even more widely as a composer of sacred song than as a singer, being the author of both words and music of the following popular songs: "Jesus loves even me," "Almost persuaded," "Hold the fort," "Pull for the shore," "What shall the harvest be?" "More to follow," "Hallelujah, 'tis done," "Free from the law," "Let the lower lights be burning," "Whosoever heareth," and "Only an armor-bearer."
In all these and his other hymns Mr. Bliss showed a remarkable skill in versifying evangelical doctrine in the very phrases of Scripture.
Mr. Bliss composed with the greatest ease and his music was mostly bright and cheerful. When Haydn was asked, "why his music was so gladsome," he replied, "I can’t make any other. I write as I feel. When I think of God my heart is so full of joy that the words dance and leap from my pen." The same might he said of Mr. Bliss and his music, for he was in perfect harmony with God and his work.
The titles of his books "Sunshine" and "Joy" epitomize the author as a Christian and a composer. Indeed his own name, "Bliss" would fulfill George MacDonald's idea of a true name when he says:
"A name of the ordinary kind in this world has nothing essential in it. It is but a label by which a man and a scrap of history may be known from another man and his scrap of history. The true name is one which expresses the character, the nature, the being, the meaning of the person who bears it. To whom is this name given? 'To him that overcometh.' "
No element of pride entered into Mr. Bliss' estimate of his work. A friend wrote him a letter quoting somewhat from "Waiting and watching for me." The reply came back, "No, I don't seem to rest much in the hope of seeing a throng of heavenly ones waiting and watching for me. They might be in better business. Nor of hearing echoes of my songs there. I want something better. The best things about heaven, seems to me, will be eternal freedom from sin, and Jesus' immediate presence.
'There we shall see His face
And never, never sin.'"
His prayer in song expresses the humility and also the spiritual aspiration of his heart:
"More purity give me,
More strength to o'ercome,
More freedom from earth-stains,
More longings for home;
More fit for the kingdom,
More used would I be,
More blessed and holy
More, Saviour, like thee."
As to personal appearance Mr. Bliss is thus pictured by one who knew him well:
"He was tall and well-developed in his physical frame, with clustering black hair and a handsome face, possessing easy and polished manners and a very joyous temperament, together with a wealth of sympathy."
Perhaps the most notable traits in Mr. Bliss' character were his "rock-firm God-trust" and his cheerful self-sacrifice.
After the great fire in Chicago he wrote:
"I think God is bringing great good out of this seeming evil. Unite your prayer daily with ours that 'after the fire the still, small voice may be heard and that the Spirit may be poured out in this city."
He wrote a song of comfort to cheer those who had suffered by the fire, and sang it with his grand voice here and there through the city itself and afterwards in a tour with Mr. Moody raising a relief fund. We give two verses of the song below:
"3. Thousands are homeless, and quick to their cry
Heaven-born charity yields a supply,
Upward we glance in our terrible grief,
'Give us this day' brings the promised relief.
"4. Treasures have vanished and riches have flown,
Hopes for the earth-life are blasted and gone,
Courage, O brother, yield not to despair,
'God is our refuge,' his kingdom we share."
"Roll on, roll on, O billow of fire!
Dash with thy fury waves higher and higher
Ours is a mansion abiding and sure,
Ours is a kingdom eternal, secure."
During the sessions of a Sunday-school camp meeting in which he was the musical leader there came up a very sudden and severe gale, rending and throwing to earth the pavilion tent which but an hour previous had been occupied by several hundred persons. Providentially the gale occurred at the noon hour when but few were under it and all these escaped unharmed.
"Is any one killed or hurt ? " was Mr. Bliss' first question.
"Thank God! We must have a praise meeting."
Soon after, at the opening of the afternoon session, with tearful eyes and beaming face he led the great congregation in singing:
"Praise God from whom all blessings flow."
Perhaps the most complete evidence of Mr. Bliss' trust in God was his actual dependence upon him for daily bread.
In the summer of 1876 a friend congratulated Mrs. Bliss that the immense sale of "Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs" must have given them at least ten thousand dollars to pay down toward a home. She replied, "Mr. Bliss has not ten dollars to pay down on a home. Since January we have been living from day to day, doing the Lord's work with our might and depending upon what he sends us. Although the illness of our children has greatly increased our expenses beyond other years God has sent us enough to supply our needs."
Many are not aware that Mr. Bliss, as well as Mr. Sankey, gave up the royalty upon the "Bliss and Sankey Song Book," (not "The Moody and Sankey Song Book," as it is sometimes thoughtlessly called) and thus sacrificed about thirty thousand dollars, putting the royalty into the hands of Mr. George H. Stuart, Mr. W. E. Dodge, Jr., and Mr. John V. Farwell, to use it for charitable and evangelistic purposes. "Gospel Hymns No. 2," which Mr. Bliss with Mr. Sankey had just completed when he was killed, was sent forth under the same self-sacrificing and benevolent arrangement on the part of the authors.
Mr. Moody recently urged Mr. Bliss to take at least five thousand dollars of the royalty for himself and family, saying that he needed it, but he would not take a dollar. It must all go for the Lord's work.
It was sufficient reward to him that the songs he had composed were proclaiming the Gospel round the world, being sung not only in Europe, but also in Africa and Asia. I recently heard "Hold the Fort" in Swedish. A missionary letter from Africa reports the singing of it there in the Zulu language, and the Bliss and Sankey collection has also been translated and published (in part) in China, in the native tongue. In India also singing evangelists are using these same hymns.
With the deep God-trust and self-sacrifice Mr. Bliss combined an abounding cheerfulness. His beaming face was a silent psalm assuring the beholder, "Happy is the man that hath the God of Jacob for his help."
He wrote to a friend, "Dr. V____ is jolly, great and good. Some people are great and good, but can't be jolly. I can't like them quite so well." He wrote out his own heart in that verse of his:
"No darkness have we who in Jesus abide,
The Light of the world is Jesus;
We walk in the light when we follow our guide,
The Light of the world is Jesus."
He has now realized beyond his utmost dreams on earth the heavenly glory and joy of which he sang in another verse of that same hymn as well as in scores of others:
"No need of the sunshine in heaven we're told;
The Light of that world is Jesus.
The Lamb is the light in the City of Gold;
The Light of that world is Jesus."
This sketch would be very incomplete without some record of Mrs. Bliss, whom her husband was pleased to style "My faithful assistant Lou." Mrs. Bliss was herself the composer of several choice pieces of music, both hymns and tunes; one of them a very beautiful tune to the words of "Rock of Ages," which was impressively sung at their funeral services. Whenever circumstances would permit she attended her husband in his public work, aiding him by her voice and by playing accompaniments. It is said that from her he received his first lessons, both in singing and playing. They were indeed of "one accord" in their noble life work. When the sudden summons came she was on the Lord's errand with her husband.
"Lovely and pleasant in their lives, in their deaths they were not divided."
Mr. Bliss leaves a widowed mother of whom he was the only son, and two little ones, Paul and George, aged four and two years. Mr. Moody asks the people of God to take them in charge with their money and their prayers. He himself has raised ten thousand dollars for their support and education, and other free-will offerings have and will come to them from many a Sunday-school where Mr. Bliss' songs are sung, and prayers will rise from many hearts that God will keep them in his sheltering care.
The memorial service in honor of these two Christian workers in Chicago was the largest meeting ever held in that city, showing the loving esteem in which he was held. A monument will be erected to Mr. Bliss' memory, as is most befitting, but the most enduring monument of his life will be "the good he has done," and is still doing by his music and his life,—the monument he so often urged others to raise for themselves, as he sang:
Fading away, like the stars of the morning,
Losing their light in the glorious sun;
So let me steal away, gently and lovingly,
Only remembered by what I have done.
So in the harvest, if others may gather
Sheaves from the fields that in spring I have sown;
Who plowed or sowed matters not to the reaper:
I'm only remembered by what I have done.
Fading away like the stars of the morning,
So let my name be unhonored, unknown;
Here, or up yonder, I must be remembered,
Only remembered by what I have done.
From Song Victories of "The Bliss and Sankey Hymns"... Boston: D. Lothrop & Co, .
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