As we open "Number One," the original book, at every turn of the page we are reminded of P. P. Bliss, for his spirit permeates the whole collection. Mr. Bliss was born at Rome, Pennsylvania, in 1838 [see Birthplace of P. P. Bliss], and was brought up by devoted Christian parents. He was passionately fond of music; they used to say of him that "he loved music like a bird."
In 1864 be went to Chicago and became associated with the music house of Root and Cady, conducting musical institutes and composing Sunday school melodies. In 1874 he joined Major Whittle in evangelistic work, meeting with great success.
He was a man of splendid physique, "one of the handsomest men I ever met," said Dr. John H. Vincent. He had a deep bass voice of wonderful compass and pathos, yet with all his strength he possessed the delicate feeling and tenderness of a woman. He combined in a very unusual way magnetic power as a singer with the ability to write the most popular gospel songs, both words and music.
His best work was not accomplished by deliberate study but during flashes of inspiration. Very often an entire hymn, theme, general structure of the words, and the melody, would be born in his mind at the same time. He was always on the alert. A passing incident, a story that he chanced to hear or read, would suggest a theme for a song. A vessel was wrecked and was rapidly going to pieces. The captain ordered the crew to leave everything, to leap into the lifeboat and "pull for the shore." Mr. Bliss read of it and at once wrote his well-known song.
He heard the English evangelist, Henry Moorhouse, preach for seven nights in succession from the familiar words in John 3.16, and was so moved that he wrote, "Whosoever heareth, shout, shout the sound."
One evening he was talking with a friend about "Gates Ajar," and he went home to write out, "I know not the hour when my Lord will come."
He listened to a sermon which closed with the words, "He who is almost persuaded is almost saved, but to be almost saved is to be entirely lost," and then he wrote, "Almost Persuaded," which is said to have brought more souls to Christ than any other song he ever composed.
One morning, in his own home, as he was passing through the hall, there suddenly came to him the outline of a new song, both words and music, and presently "The Light of the World is Jesus" was upon paper.
In 1870 he heard Major Whittle tell the story of how the military signal was flashed to the beleaguered garrison at Allatoona Pass to "Hold the fort," and that moment his most famous song was born in his heart.
"Let the Lower Lights be burning," with its appealing melody, has also been a great favorite. When, the Columbus Glee Club visited the White House during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, this piece was sung at the special request of Mrs. Hayes.
Mr. Sankey tells us that when he and Mr. Moody began their work in England, the first of the songs by Mr. Bliss that became popular was, "Jesus loves even me," and "more than any other hymn, it became the keynote of our meetings." Bishop John H. Vincent was very fond of it, and once said, "If there is only one song of his that remains it will be that one."
In 1876 Mr. and Mrs. Bliss made a Christmas visit to the old home at Rome. On their way back to Chicago, on Friday evening, December 29, through the collapse of a bridge they were crossing near Ashtabula, Ohio, their train was precipitated to the stream below. The wreckage at once caught fire. Mr. Bliss escaped through a window, but crawled back to try to rescue his wife. This was the last that was seen of him. Both utterly perished in the flames. A beautiful monument was erected to his memory in the Rome cemetery, but his work in Gospel Song is his real and enduring memorial.
From The Story of the American Hymn by Edward S. Ninde. New York: Abingdon Press, ©1921.
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