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Philip Paul Bliss: Reminiscences

by George C. Stebbins (1846-1945)

P. P. BlissThe first one of the Gospel hymn writers I had the privilege of meeting, with the exception of Dr. Root, was P. P. Bliss. We were living near each other on the west side of Chicago, he on Ann Street and I on Randolph, but a few blocks away. I am unable to recall the time or the occasion of my meeting him, as a half century has since passed, but the impression he made upon me then, and as I came to know him afterwards, does not fade with the passing of time.

He was then engaged in conducting musical conventions throughout the Middle West, and was connected with the music publishing house of Root & Cady. He was also the director of music for the First Congregational Church, on the west side, and subsequently its Sunday School superintendent.

Mr. Bliss began writing for Sunday Schools in the early seventies, and his first book, "The Charm," was published in 1871 by the John Church Co., and the second, "Sunshine," in 1873.

About this time reports were coming from Scotland of the remarkable revival under the direction of Moody and Sankey, which led Mr. Bliss to turn his attention more to writing hymns suitable for evangelistic work than hitherto. It was at this time, also, that he and Major Whittle, through the urgency of Mr. Moody, were led to give up their business and professional pursuits and enter the evangelistic field.

On making this decision, he began the preparation of his book entitled "Gospel Songs," which was his first venture in this field, and in the summer and autumn of 1875 he assisted Mr. Sankey in editing the first book of the series called "Gospel
Hymns," and a year following the second number of that series was published.

Several of his celebrated songs and hymns were written for his first book, "Gospel Songs," the most notable of which was "Hold the Fort," which was written upon an incident related by Major Whittle that occurred during the Civil War, when Sherman was on his famous "March to the Sea." The Federal forces were pressing the Confederates hard, and at one point Sherman signaled to one of his commanders: "Hold the fort, for I am coming."

This song sprang at once into great favor both in this country and abroad, as a splendid rally slogan, and has maintained its popularity to the present day.

Some time after this, Mr. Bliss and Major Whittle were engaged in evangelistic work in the South, and at one time they visited Kennesaw Mountain, and on the spot where the famous order was given, he plucked a flower and enclosed it in a letter to Mrs. Stebbins, both of which she carefully preserved as mementoes of him and his thoughtfulness.

My home was then in Boston, where I had gone in 1874, therefore I saw little of him for two or three years, but we kept in touch through correspondence.

In the autumn of that year I was given charge of music in the late Dr. A. J. Gordon's church, and in January, 1876, became director of music in Tremont Temple. In August following I had occasion to spend a few days with Mr. Moody at his home in Northfield and while there became associated with Mr. Sankey and himself in their evangelistic work which lasted until the death of Mr. Moody. I at once resigned my professional work in Boston, and on the 1st of September began the organization of a choir in Chicago to assist in the Moody and Sankey three months' campaign that was to begin the first of October in a tabernacle constructed for the purpose. During the month I was thus engaged I had accommodations at the
hotel in which Mr. Bliss was staying and had the opportunity of associating with him.

During his visits there he wrote the music to two of his well known hymns—"It Is Well with My Soul" and "Eternity."' In one of his frequent visits to my room he sang for me the latter hymn and I was so much impressed by its solemnity and its striking character that I began to use it in my work at once. It was for years one of our most useful and impressive selections.

It so happened that it was the last song Mr. Bliss ever sang, so far as is known, as it was his closing song in the meetings conducted by Major Whittle in Peoria, from which place he and Mrs. Bliss went directly to Rome, Pennsylvania, to spend the Christmas holidays with their two boys.

It had been arranged by Mr. Moody that Mr. Bliss and Major Whittle should continue the meetings that came to a close at the end of the year in Chicago, holding them on Sundays in the tabernacle and week days in the churches; and it was when he and Mrs. Bliss were on their way from Rome to fill that engagement—on December 29, 1876—that they met their tragic death at Ashtabula.

At that time I was on my way to Portland, Maine, to engage in an evangelistic movement. I was intercepted by a telegram from Mr. Moody recalling me to Chicago to assist Major Whittle in the meetings arranged for Mr. Bliss and himself. I returned immediately, arriving in time to assist in the opening meeting of the series.

At the first meeting after Moody and Sankey had left for Boston, Major Whittle, in referring to the disaster that had caused such an appalling loss of life, mentioned the fact that the last song sung by Mr. Bliss was "Eternity," then announced that it would now be sung at the present meeting.

He had been listened to in breathless silence, and when the hymn beginning with the words, "Oh, the clanging bells of time," and ending with the word, "Eternity," rang out, the feeling had become intense, and a silence brooded over the people that could be felt. So deep was the impression made by the circumstances related, and the singing of the song under conditions prevailing, that it was advertised to be sung every time the services were held in the tabernacle afterwards.

As to Mr. Bliss' place among the writers of Gospel hymns, it has long been admitted that he occupied a preeminence that still stands unrivaled, and to my mind it is a just estimate.

There has been no writer of verse since his time who has shown such a grasp of the fundamental truths of the Gospel, or such a gift for putting them into poetic and singable form as he. Take, for instance, "Hallelujah, What a Savior!' There is in that hymn not only a remarkably clear and forcible presentation of the atonement, but it is put in words not one of which could be changed for the better. Nor, indeed, could there have been a more suitable or sympathetic setting for them than is found in his admirable music. Another illustration is to be found in the hymn, "Free from the Law," which is conceded to be the clearest statement of the doctrine of grace in distinction from the law to be found in hymnology. Indeed, it was said at the time of Moody and Sankey's first visit to Scotland in 1873 that the singing of that hymn had more to do in breaking down the prejudice that existed against Gospel hymns up to that time than anything else, as its teaching was so Scriptural and in such perfect accord with the teaching of the Scottish divines. The musical setting of it, too, could not have been improved upon.

Then, as an illustration of a hymn making a solemn appeal to the undecided, could there be anything more impressive or beautiful than his "Almost Persuaded," which is, indeed, a classic in its way?

Other compositions could be cited that would illustrate still further his rare gifts, but these are so representative that it is needless to illustrate further.

In these hymns, as in all of which he was the author, there was manifest a happy blending of the poet and musician, and along with it rare judgment and deep spiritual insight into the needs of presenting the saving truths of Scripture in clear and singable form.

In my estimation his work in both fields is worthy to be recognized as an ideal to be followed by writers of to-day, and I have always held his sympathetic and appropriate musical settings as a guide in my own work.

So versatile were Mr. Bliss' talents that his gifts as singer and leader were little less than those he possessed as a writer of hymns. He had a voice of rare quality and splendid volume, a baritone of extraordinary range and evenness throughout, and a perfect method of voice production and control, which enabled him to modulate it at will.

As a leader he occupied a position of prominence by reason of native gifts and years of experience, which, combined with an impressive personality (he was six feet tall and of commanding stature, with features as perfect in form, and eyes that were large and kindly in expression), made him the great leader of evangelistic song that he was.

He sang without ostentation, playing his own accompaniment on a cabinet organ. His leading was also without display or any attempt at attracting attention to himself.

P. P. Bliss was born July 9th, 1838, and reared in the country, his birthplace being in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. His early advantages for the development of his talents were meager, but he made the best use of them possible, and when he had the opportunity to attend musical conventions his strides toward the accomplishment of the ambitions that had been awakened in him became rapid, and he early joined the ranks of the professional convention leaders, becoming one of the most successful and prominent among them.

These achievements, however, were but stepping stones to a greater work God had in store for him, and served to prepare the way to a world-wide ministry of song that was to bless coming generations. What further service he would have accomplished had his life been spared, cannot be known, but the service already rendered is still, after a half century, a blessing and inspiration to untold millions over the world, a monument far more enduring than marble.

From George C. Stebbins: Reminiscences and Gospel Hymn Stories by Himself. New York: George H. Doran Company, ©1924.

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