Philip P. Bliss, the composer and singer, whose hymns and tunes have become so widely popular and useful, was a native of northern Pennsylvania. He was of humble extraction, and in his early life had few advantages for education or culture; but God had given him a noble nature, and endowed him with at least three great talents. He married young a lady of his own social position, possessing great strength of character and deep religious principle, through whose influence Mr. Bliss was converted, and led to consecrate all the energies of his great soul to the Master's service.
On coming to Chicago he united with the First Congregational Church, Rev. Dr. Goodwin, pastor, where he labored lovingly and faithfully for many years as leader of the choir and superintendent of the Sunday-school; also becoming widely known throughout the North-west by his work in musical conventions. He was an accomplished vocalist, possessing a rich baritone voice; while as a composer he will be long remembered as author of many of the Gospel Songs sung at the Moody and Sankey meetings—such as "Hold the Fort;" "That will be Heaven for Me;" Where Are the Nine?;" "Whosoever Will;" "What Shall the Harvest Be?;" "Hallelujah, 'tis Done;" "More to Follow;" "My Prayer;" "Almost Persuaded;" "Where Hast Thou Gleaned To-day?;" "When Jesus Comes;" "Let the Lower Lights be Burning;" "Pull for the Shore;" "Only an Armor-bearer," and others. In many cases both the words and music were of his composition.
Mrs. Bliss, who possessed much musical ability, also composed words and music for some of the pieces contained in his collection, under the nom de plume of "Paulina."
The tie between this husband and wife was of the closest and tenderest nature. She it was who inspired him with confidence in his musical abilities, and aided and encouraged their development. "All that I am I owe to that dear wife," was his own testimony to her loving helpfulness.
Soon after Major Whittle entered upon the revival work, Mr. Bliss decided to give up his business and accompany him. Together they traveled through the West and South during the years 1874, '75, and '76, Major Whittle preaching, and Mr. Bliss singing, the Gospel. Possessed of easy and polished manners, a joyous and hopeful temperament, with a wealth of sympathy for need or sorrow, and a most childlike trust in God, he seemed especially endowed for the work he had undertaken. Generous and kind in the extreme, he devoted his share of the royalty upon the "Gospel Songs," which had altogether amounted to over $60,000, to charity. He had no private fortune, not even owning the house in which he lived but he knew that God would take care of him and his.
During the last three months of his life, in connection with Major Whittle, he held revival services at Kalamazoo, Mich., and afterward at Peoria, Ill. These meetings were crowned with great success, large numbers of people being led to the cross of Christ.
It had been arranged that at the close of the Moody and Sankey meetings in Chicago, Messrs. Whittle and Bliss should carry on the revival work. But God had other plans for "the sweet singer of Israel." Mr. and Mrs. Bliss and their two little children, Paul, and George Goodwin, went to Pennsylvania to spend the Christmas holidays. "He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow."
The visit was brief, for Mr. Bliss was to begin his work in Chicago Sunday, December 31. The cold was intense, and a wild snow-storm was raging; so leaving their two little ones at the house of a relative in Avon, N. Y., whom they had also visited, the devoted pair set out upon their journey, Mr. Bliss telegraphing to Major Whittle, "We're going home to morrow."
But the home which awaited them was nearer than Chicago. The work of a life-time had been done in a few earnest years, and the voice of the Master said, "Come up higher."
On the night of Friday, December 29, all that was mortal of Mr. Bliss and his faithful wife perished in the terrible railway accident at Ashtabula, Ohio.
Their transition from one world to the other was thus instantaneous, but it deserves not to be called unexpected, since toward those opening gates he was already looking with a sense of approaching death and glory. He already belonged in heaven; his citizenship was there.
The Memorial Services
When the sad news of his death and that of his family—for the first report was that parents and children had all perished together—reached Chicago, the burden of loss and sorrow seemed almost too heavy to bear.
On Sunday, December 31, a Memorial Service was held in the Tabernacle, the vast building being draped with mourning, and decorated with pure white crowns of flowers, which are every-where sacred to death. A large congregation assembled, while the great choir sang, softly and lovingly, several of his beautiful hymns who had just entered into the heaven of which he loved to sing.
Presently Mr. Moody entered, and all eyes were turned to see how this man, twice bowed under the weight of affliction since the Chicago revival began, would bear himself, and all ears were listening for his first word in his great sorrow.
He stood up in his place, and, with manifest effort to keep back the sobs and tears, repeated those words of David, "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen in Israel?" Then, almost unable to speak for weeping, he said, "Let us lift up our hearts to God in silent prayer."
A long period of silence followed, broken at length by sounds of overpowering emotion, in the midst of which the voice of Dr. Chamberlain was heard giving thanks to God for the hope of eternal life on behalf of those who had been borne on angels' wings from the place of terror and death up to the bosom of God.
Mr. Moody then arose and said: "For the past three months I have seemed to stand between the living and the dead; and now I am to stand in the place of the dead. Mr. Whittle and Mr. Bliss were announced to hold the four o'clock meeting in the Tabernacle to-day, and now Mr. Farwell, and Mr. Jacobs, and Mr. Whittle, with other friends, have gone to see if they can find his remains to take them away for burial. I have been looking over his hymns to see if I could find one appropriate to this occasion, but I find that they are all, like himself, full of hope and cheer. In all the years I have known and worked with him I have never once seen him cast down. But here is a hymn of his that I thought we might sing.
Once, after the wreck of that steamer at Cleveland, I was speaking of the circumstance that the lower lights were out, and the next time we met he sang this hymn for me. It is the sixty-fifth in our collection: let us sing it now. It begins, Brightly beams our Father's mercy;' but still more brightly beam the 'lights along the shore' to which he has passed. It was in the midst of a terrible storm he passed away, but the lights which he kindled are burning all along the shore. He has died young—only about thirty-eight years old—but his hymns are sung round the world. Only a little while ago we received a copy of these hymns translated into the Chinese language."
After the singing, the Rev. Dr. Goodwin, of whose Church Mr. Bliss had for many years been a loved and honored member, came forward and said:—
"Ever since these sad tidings came I have been trying to say, 'Not my will, but Thine be done.' I don’t know of any death that has come so near to me. For years I have been almost as a part of that household; one of the little ones bore my name; we have worked and prayed together, and I have known very much of his heart in connection with the great mission of his life, and shared in his ever-increasing delight that God was using him and his music so wonderfully. It was hours after the awful news came before I could see any light; but at last I seemed to see a vision of a great praise service in heaven, with Brother Bliss leading it—he was to have led a praise meeting at our Sunday-school this afternoon—and then I found light in this darkness. Out of the fifty Sunday-school scholars who are now waiting to be received into the fellowship of our Church, there is hardly one but can bear witness to his helpfulness in leading them to Christ.
"Out of this affliction has come to them an exceeding and eternal weight of glory, and so I begin to feel, as well as say, All is well, all is well; 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,' and 'The day of his death is better than the day of his birth.'
"This man's work has reached all round the world. The other day I received a letter from a missionary in South Africa. He said he was going out some time ago to establish a new mission, and when he took refuge in a Zulu hut the first sound he heard was the song, 'Hold the Fort,' sung in the Zulu language. Here is that thirteenth hymn which he sung for us the other night. He began by saying, 'Brethren, I don't know as I shall ever sing here again, [and he never did,] but I want to sing this as the language of my heart.'"
"Let us sing that hymn," said Mr. Moody, which was done as follows:—
"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.
Chorus.—And that will be glory for me,
O, that will be glory for me;
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 harps' 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."
Mr. Moody immediately arranged for a subscription for a monument to commemorate the life which had been so helpful, and as soon as the safety of the orphan children was assured, a subscription for their benefit was also circulated.
Every heart was open, and soon the sum of ten thousand dollars was raised, five thousand dollars of it being the gift of Mr. R. C. Morgan, of London, publisher of the English edition of "Gospel Songs."
A work so wholly for Christ as that of Mr. Bliss could not end at his death. The hymns he wrote will yet inspire thousands of souls with love for the Saviour, and comfort heavy-laden hearts with the cheer which filled his own. "He being dead, yet speaketh," both in life and song.
The following hymn, the last one ever penned by P. P. Bliss, was found in his trunk, which had been forwarded to Chicago by another train than the one on which he perished, and was not quite completed nor revised at the time of his death. How near it comes to being a prophecy!
I know not what awaits me,
God kindly vails mine eyes,
And o'er each step on my onward way
He makes new scenes arise;
And every joy He sends me comes
A sweet and glad surprise.
Chorus.—Where He may lead I'll follow,
My trust in Him repose,
And every hour in perfect peace
I'll sing, "He knows, He knows."
One step I see before me,
'Tis all I need to see,
The light of heaven more brightly shines
When earth's illusions flee;
And sweetly through the silence comes
His loving "Follow me."
O blissful lack of wisdom!
'Tis blessed not to know!
He holds me with his own right hand
And will not let me go.
And lulls my troubled soul to rest
In Him who loves me so.
So on I go, not knowing:
I would not if I might:
I'd rather walk in the dark with God,
Than go alone in the light;
I'd rather walk by faith in Him
Than go alone by sight.
From Moody: His Words, Work and Workers... edited by W. H. Daniels; with an introduction by Charles H. Fowler. New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1877.
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