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P. P. Bliss: Hymn Writer and Gospel Singer

by Jacob Henry Hall

P. P. BlissPhilip Paul Bliss was born in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania [United States], July 9, 1838. His father and mother were religious and musical, and the home influence was such as to make good and lasting impressions upon the boy. He early developed a passion for music, and would sit and listen with delight to his parents singing when but a child, and very early sang with them.

The first piano he ever saw was when he was about ten years of age. He was a large overgrown boy, and one day down in the village as he was passing by a house, he heard the sweetest music of his life. The door stood open and he was irresistibly drawn towards the sweet sounds that came from within. He was barefoot and entered unobserved and stood at the parlor door listening as a young lady played upon the piano. As she ceased playing he exclaimed with an intense desire, "Oh, lady, play some more." She looked around surprised, and with no appreciation of the tender heart that had been so touched by her music, said, "Go out of here with your great feet," and he went away crushed, but with the memories of harmonies that seemed to him like heaven.

His youthful days were spent on a farm or in a lumber camp, with the schooling the country afforded. In 1850 he made a public profession of Christ. He was immersed by a minister of the Christian Church. He afterwards became a member of a Baptist church that was near the school he was attending at Elk Run, Pennsylvania. He was naturally very religious from boyhood.

In 1855 be spent the winter in a select school at East Troy, Pennsylvania. In 1856 he worked on a farm in the summer and taught school in the winter at Hartsville, New York. He was then but eighteen years of ago and his quickness of mind for learning and his industry in the improvement of opportunities are in a marked way indicated by the fact that he was fitted to become a teacher.

The following winter he received his first systematic instruction in music. The school was taught by Mr. J. G. Towner, father of D. B. Towner. The same winter he attended a musical convention at Rome, Pennsylvania. In the providence of God Wm. B. Bradbury was in charge of the convention. From the time of this meeting Mr. Bliss cherished a deep affection for Mr. Bradbury and a reverence for the gifts God had bestowed upon him as a composer.

In 1858 Mr. Bliss taught in Rome Academy, Rome, Pennsylvania. He boarded in the family of O. F. Young. Here he met the one who was as dear to him as the apple of his eye in the person of Miss Lucy Young. They were married June 1, 1859.

In July and August of 1860, a Normal Academy of music was held in Geneseo, New York, by T. E. Perkins, T. J. Cook, Bassini, and others. Mr. Bliss attended, afterwards taking up music teaching as a profession. He also attended the same normal in 1861 and 1863. In these times his teaching was done in the winter months. He worked on the farm during the summer. The instructors of Mr. Bliss at these normals all speak in the highest terms of his unusual intelligence and remarkable proficiency.

Dr. Root said that "some time in 1863 he received a letter from Mr. Bliss that interested them very much. It accompanied the manuscript of a song. Would we give the writer a flute for it was the substance of the letter expressed in a quaint and original way, and in beautiful handwriting. We were on the lookout for bright men, and we felt sure that here was one. The song needed some revising, but we took it and sent him the flute.

"Later we made arrangements with Mr. Bliss to come to Chicago. It was agreed that he would go as our representative to towns that would naturally be tributary to Chicago and hold conventions and give concerts (his wife being his accompanist), and so turn people's attention to us for whatever they might want in the way of music. For this service we guaranteed him a certain annual sum. If his concerts and conventions did not reach that amount we were to make it up.

"Mr. Bliss was constantly composing, and I soon saw that there was a man who had a 'call' both as a poet and melodist. His songs have been a wonderful power for good."

For four years Mr. Bliss remained in the employ of Root & Cady, holding conventions and giving concerts in towns of the Northwest. He afterwards continued the same work four years more independently. It was in the summer of 1869 that he first met Mr. Moody. After that he frequently led the music in the great preacher's meetings.

Mr. C. M. Wyman, since deceased, was at this time working with Mr. Bliss, writing songs. They both being earnest Christian men, attended Mr. Moody's meetings together. Mr. D. W. Whittle says that he thinks Mr. Moody got his first impression of the power of solo singing in gospel work from these two men. The first associated work of Mr. Whittle and Mr. Bliss was in a Sunday-school convention at Winnebago, Illinois. Mr. Whittle was invited to address the convention and was told to bring a singer with him. Mr. Moody was consulted as to a singer and the result was Mr. Bliss was chosen. He made a fine impression on the convention.

He was then engaged to take charge of the music in the First Congregational Church of Chicago. After three years, he resigned to enter the field as singing evangelist with Major Whittle.

Mr. Moody, who was at this time in Scotland (in the winter of 1873-1874), wrote a number of letters to Mr. Bliss, urging him to drop everything else and sing the Gospel. He also wrote many letters to Major Whittle, urging that they two should go together and hold meetings. They finally concluded to try a meeting or two, letting the results help them to decide. The first meeting was held in Waukegan, Ill., March 24th-26th. The meeting was a memorable one. Major Whittle says concerning it: "We returned to Chicago praising God; Bliss to find substitutes for his conventions, and I to resign my business position."

At this time Mr. Bliss' reputation as a composer was being recognized everywhere and his income from his business was good and growing. Both he and his wife were looking forward to the time when they could settle down at home and live in comfort with a good income from his musical writings; but as we have said before, Mr. Bliss was naturally very religious and he felt that this was a call from God. He made a complete surrender of all former ambitions and Major Whittle says, "Up to the day of his death I never heard him express a regret that he made his surrender and gave himself to God for His work."

They began immediately their joint labors as evangelist and singer, holding meetings in various towns in Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, etc.

In September, 1876, he and his wife made a visit to Mr. Moody at Northfield, Massachusetts. Mr. and Mrs. Bliss greatly enjoyed their visit, although both would laughingly mention Mr. Moody's method of making the best use of his visitors that he could, as manifested in using them in eleven meetings in a week. Mrs. Bliss was his constant companion and greatly assisted him in his work.

The fame of the evangelists spread till their services were asked for in England. Mr. Moody urged them to go and they decided to do so. Their plan was to hold a meeting in Chicago, and as soon as that meeting was through go to England. It was now nearly Christmas and Mr. Bliss went home to spend Christmas with his family at Rome, Pennsylvania. He was advertised to sing in Mr. Moody's Tabernacle the Sunday after Christmas. A telegram was sent him to that effect, and it was while en route to this appointment that the great disaster occurred in which he and Mrs. Bliss lost their lives. This was December 29, 1876. Their train broke through a bridge at Ashtabula, Ohio, that spanned a chasm sixty feet in depth, carrying into eternity almost all on board. The train caught fire and was consumed. The next morning when word reached Chicago, Major Whittle and others went to the scene of the disaster, and in Mr. Whittle's words, "remained there three days, until all the wreck had been removed, searching first for their bodies, then for anything that could be identified as having been connected with them. We found nothing... They have gone, as absolutely and completely gone, as if translated like Enoch." They left two sons.

Prof. F. W. Root, in speaking of Mr. Bliss, says:

"If ever a man seemed fashioned by the Divine hand for special and exalted work, that man was P. P. Bliss. He had a splendid physique, a handsome face, and a dignified, striking presence... He had not had opportunities for large intellectual culture, but his natural mental gifts were wonderful. His faculty for seizing upon the salient features of whatever came under his notice amounted to an unerring instinct. The one kernel of wheat in a bushel of chaff was the first thing he saw. Examine the work which really enlisted his whole soul and you will see nothing but keen discernment, rare taste, and great verbal facility. His gospel hymns contain no pointless verses, awkward rhythms or forced rhymes, but on the contrary, they glow with all that gives life to such composition. He also had a natural instinct for melody. Mr. Bliss' voice was always a marvel to me. He used occasionally to come to my room, requesting that I would look into his vocalization with a view to suggestions. At first a few suggestions were made, but [recently] I could do nothing but admire. Beginning with D-flat below (F-clef), he would without apparent effort, produce a series of clarion tones, in an ascending series, until having reached G space above (C-clef) with pure tone."

His publications were "The Charm" and "Sunshine," for Sunday-schools (he also contributed largely, to "The Prize," for Sunday-schools); "The Song Tree," a collection of parlor and concert songs; "The Joy," for conventions; and "Gospel Songs," for gospel meetings. He and Mr. Sankey compiled "Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, Nos. 1 and 2." He was author also of a great many sheet songs.

Many of Mr. Bliss' gospel songs have been sung around the world and are still immensely popular.

From Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers by J. H. Hall. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, ©1914.

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