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P. P. Bliss, 1838-1876.

by Norman Mable

P. P. BlissWhosoever heareth, shout, shout the sound.
Hold the fort for I am coming

It is not generally known that the second initial of P. P. Bliss stands for no name at all. This popular hymn-writer had only one Christian name, which was spelled in the unusual manner of Phillipp; and as a nom-de-plume he made use of the peculiarity by writing his signature, 'Philip P. Bliss', or, more frequently, 'P. P. Bliss'.

In 1850, at the early age of twelve, Bliss was baptised by immersion, and joined the Baptist Church of Cherry Flats, Tioga County, Pennsylvania. He did not confine his activities to that denomination, but associated a great deal with the Methodists, joining with them in camp-meetings and revival services, gaining much experience thereby in evangelical work. William B. Bradbury, the composer of many popular hymn-tunes, including Even me, was of great assistance to him in forming an appreciation, and recognising the value of song in worship.

In 1864 Bliss went to Chicago, where for nearly ten years he worked with George F. Root, the noted American musician and composer, in the conducting of musical institutes and conventions in the West. In 1874 he was invited by Major Whittle, the famous evangelist, to join him in evangelistic work, and the conjunction of 'Whittle and Bliss' became nearly as well-known as that of 'Moody and Sankey' and 'Torrey-Alexander'. Like Mr. Sankey and Mr. Alexander, Bliss led the singing at their meetings, and great was the impression he created by the charm of his renderings of sacred songs.

In 1869 a young Englishman, Henry Moorhouse, known as the 'Boy Preacher', was engaged in conducting mission services in the States, and Mr. Moody invited him to preach for a week at his church in Chicago. Enormous crowds gathered to hear him, and each night he preached from the same text, John 3:16, 'God so loved the world.' Mr. Bliss attended these meetings, and Moorhouse's discourses so inspired him that he wrote a hymn which became one of his most popular: Whosoever heareth, shout, shout the sound! with its appealing emphasis on the all-important refrain, 'Whosoever will!'.

The following year Bliss was at a Sunday School meeting at Rockford, Illinois, with Major Whittle, at which the major related the story of how, six years previously, during the American Civil War, General Corse, of the Federal Army, found himself in a fort with fifteen hundred men completely surrounded by General French's forces. The situation appeared to be hopeless, and the Federals were about to surrender, when signaling was observed from the top of a mountain some twenty miles away. It was a message from an army sent to their relief, and read: 'Hold the fort; I am coming. Sherman.' Encouraged by the signal, the Federals held out for another three hours, until General Sherman's troops arrived and the Confederates were forced to retreat.

Upon this incident Bliss quickly conceived the idea of another famous hymn, and the next day, at a 'Whittle and Bliss' meeting in the Y.M.C.A. rooms at Chicago, he wrote the chorus on a blackboard:

'Hold the fort, for I am coming,'
Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven,
'By Thy grace we will,'

Mr. Bliss then sang the verses and the audience speedily took up the chorus. Thus was first given to the world this celebrated hymn, which in a very short time became tremendously popular.

Bliss, however, never shared in the general high opinion of it, and considered other of his compositions were much better. But posterity evidently thought differently, for when a monument was erected to his memory at Rome, Pennsylvania, the inscription placed thereon was,

P. P. Bliss
Author of 'Hold the fort'

Bliss's end was sudden and tragic. On 29th December 1876 he and his wife were travelling in a train bound for Chicago, when at Ashtabula, Ohio, as they were passing over a bridge, it collapsed, and the entire train was hurled into the river below and the cars caught fire. Bliss, who before the accident had been reading his Bible and writing a new song, managed to escape through a window; but, discovering that his wife was still in the burning train, he rushed back to save her, and in trying to do so lost his own life.

Duffield relates how at the memorial meeting held in Chicago it was remembered that the last time Bliss sang in that city 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." Then he sang, 'I know not the hour when my Lord will come.'

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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