One of God's gifts to modern Christian music was Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876). A Pennsylvania farm boy who wrote some of the earliest gospel songs to gain wide popularity in both Britain and America, he had little formal music training and minimal schooling. Yet in the short span of 12 years (1864-1876) a devoted heart and a natural sensitivity to common folks inspired "Hold the Fort," "Almost Persuaded," "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning," "Hallelujah! What a Savior!" and the music to "It Is Well with My Soul," among many others. Evangelist D. L. Moody said of Bliss:
"...I loved and admired him. I believe he was raised up of God to write hymns for the Church of Christ in this age, as Charles Wesley was for the church in his day. ... In my estimate, he was the most highly honored of God, of any man of his time, as a writer and singer of Gospel Songs, and with all his gifts he was the most humble man I ever knew. I loved him as a brother, and shall cherish his memory...."
Growing up mostly around Rome, in western Pennsylvania, just south of Elmira, New York, the Bliss family was rich in heart, but poor. A hard-scrabble, transient childhood, allowed Philip Bliss few educational opportunities. Early learning the songs of his father, a devout and earnest man who loved to sing aloud, young Philip whistled and sang those same tunes, and occasionally "played" them on crude musical instruments. He did not hear a piano until he was ten. At age 11, he left home to ease the burden on his family, earning his own living in farms and logging camps, fitting in whatever schooling might be possible along the way. His sister remembered the touching scene that day he left home, the sweetly sensitive boy carrying all his clothes wrapped in a handkerchief and tossing his sisters two pennies over his shoulder as he made his way down the lane, not allowing himself to look back in a final farewell.
From age 11 to 16, his independent existence was disciplined by work that yielded as much as $9 per month with board. In 1850, during one of his periods of school attendance at Elk Run, as a Baptist minister conducted a revival among the students, Bliss made his profession of faith in Christ. A short time later, in a creek near his home, he was baptized by a minister of the Christian church. In reflection later in life, Bliss said his conversion was undramatic because he could not remember a time when he did not love the Savior, feel remorse for his sins, and pray.
Despite little schooling, in 1856, at age 18, in what can be seen in retrospect as a tribute to his character and seriousness of purpose, he was enlisted to teach school in Hartsville, New York. The following winter, 1857, in Towanda, Pennsylvania, he met J.G. Towner, father of hymn writer D. B. Towner (composer of the music to "Trust and Obey," "Grace Greater Than Our Sin," "At Calvary," etc.), and that winter the elder Towner's singing school afforded Bliss his first systematic instruction in music. Also, that winter, probably under Towner's influence, he attended his first musical convention in Rome, Pennsylvania, an event that intensified his passion for music, nurtured his talent, and quickened his musical instincts. Fortunately, W. B. Bradbury (compositions include "Just As I Am," "The Solid Rock," "Sweet Hour of Prayer," "He Leadeth Me," and "Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us") , the leading force in the convention, was just beginning his ministry as a composer of sacred music. Bliss took great inspiration from Bradbury, developed affection for him and great regard for his musical ability. At Bradbury's death later, Bliss wrote a song he entitled, "We Love Him," which concludes:
We love the things that he has loved;
We love his earthly name;
And when we know his angel form,
We'll love him just the same.
We'll love each other better then,
We'll love 'Our Father' more;
We'll roll a sweeter song of praise
Along the 'Golden Shore.'"
The winter of 1858 found Bliss teaching school in Almond, New York, and living with the family of a school board member. June 1, 1859, Bliss married the daughter of the school board member, Lucy J. Young, and they remained in the household, with Bliss a farm hand, paid $13 per month, standard farm-hand wages. Bliss marked that period as extremely important in his life. That winter, he began teaching music, allowing him to learn how little music he knew, and how passionately he wanted to know more. He was frustrated, then discouraged and almost depressed at his earnest longing for music education, but without money even to attend the Normal Academy of Music in Geneseo, New York, one of the more extensive traveling music schools so common in that day, and the great event among music lovers of the area. He later told the story that one day when only his grandmother-in-law was in the house, he threw himself on an old settee and, not having the $30 the Music Academy required, "...cried for disappointment. I thought everything had come to an end; that my life must be passed as a farm hand and country schoolmaster, and all bright hopes for the future must be given up."
Grandma Allen, moved by his passion, told him she had been dropping coins into an old sock for a number of years. Upon counting the coins, she found more than the $30 required, and thus did a great service in underwriting Bliss's six-week course. It was a life-changing time for the young musician, allowing him to meet music leaders of the area, to answer questions he had often posed to himself, and to have realms of music unveiled. After the course, his father-in-law bought him a $20 melodeon and, he noted in his diary, with the melodeon and Old Fanny, his horse, he was in business as a professional music teacher.
Income from his music teaching bettered his standard of living and allowed him freedom to attend the traveling schools again in 1861 and in 1863. Bliss was chosen the most intelligent pupil by his teacher at the first school he attended, and thereafter, was given the attention reserved for prize pupils, including private voice lessons.
His songwriting career was launched in 1864. While living in Rome, doing farm work and teaching music, he wrote "Lora Vale," a sad, sentimental tune about the dying of a young girl, with the chorus:
Lora, Lora, still we love thee,
Tho' we see thy form no more,
And we know thou'll come to meet us
When we reach the mystic shore.
It happened that James McGranahan (composer of "There Shall Be Showers of Blessing," "I Know Whom I Have Believed," "I Will Sing of My Redeemer"), himself a songwriter and musical friend of Bliss, was that summer a clerk in the country store and post office of Rome. (Later, after Bliss's death, McGranahan took his place as musical associate to Major D. W. Whittle.) He reviewed the proofs of Bliss's first composition and offered suggestions. Published in 1864 as sheet music, the song was popular and sold several thousand copies.
In 1863 or 1864, Bliss had met George Root ("Jesus Loves the Little Children," "The Lord Is in His Holy Temple") who, with his brother, W. F. Root, had the firm of Root & Cady of Chicago, that published Bliss's first song, operated a retail music store, and conducted music schools throughout the midwest. Drafted into the army in 1865, Bliss was discharged two weeks later, when it became clear that the Civil War was ending. A gospel quartet, the "Yankee Boys," of which Bliss was a member, received an offer from Root & Cady to "come West" to Chicago to hold concerts on a salaried basis. The "Yankee Boys" did not succeed, but the Root brothers retained Bliss, and for the next four years with Root & Cady, and then on his own, his occupation was the holding of music conventions, concerts and giving music lessons throughout the northern midwest. Periodically, he helped write and assemble songs for Root & Cady songbook publications.
Another pivotal year in Bliss's life came in 1869 when he met D. L. Moody. The evangelist was holding meetings in Wood's Museum theatre, Clark and Randolph Streets in Chicago. Moody's modus operandi was to preach in the open air from the steps of the nearby courthouse for about thirty minutes and then to urge the crowd into his meeting. Bliss and his wife, having heard of Moody but never having heard him, out for a stroll before Sunday evening services, happened onto the outdoor preaching. When Moody appealed to all to come inside, they followed. The music director absent that evening, the singing was weak, and from his place in the congregation, Bliss's voice, strong and confident, attracted Moody's eye. When the service was over and Moody greeted folks at the door, Bliss wrote later, "as I came to him he had my name and history in about two minutes, and a promise that when I was in Chicago Sunday evenings, I would come and help in the singing at the theater meetings." Moody asked Root & Cady, "where in the world they had kept such a man for four years that he hadn't become known in Chicago?"
In May of 1870, Bliss accompanied Moody's friend Major D. W. Whittle to a Sunday School Convention at Rockford, Illinois. There, Whittle, a major conference speaker, related an incident from the Civil War to illustrate Christ's being the Christian's commander, and of His coming to our relief. (Though Whittle did not witness the events firsthand, he was on active duty with Major General Oliver Howard in the vicinity of Atlanta, in October, 1864.) Just before General Sherman began his march to the sea, about 20 miles north of Marietta and Atlanta, Confederate troops cut Sherman's communications lines along the railroad at Allatoona Pass, site of a huge fortification of Union supplies and rations. It was extremely important that the earthworks commanding the Pass and protecting the supplies be held. Confederate forces surrounded the works and vigorous fighting ensued. The battle seemed lost and the cause hopeless to the Union soldiers. But at that moment an officer caught sight of a white signal flag, far away across the valley, 20 miles away, atop Kennesaw Mountain. The signal was answered, and soon the message was waved from mountain to mountain: "Hold the Fort; I am coming. W. T. Sherman." The song was instantly born in the mind of Bliss:
Ho! My comrades, see the signal
Waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing
Victory is nigh!
'Hold the fort, for I am coming,'
Jesus signals still.
Wave the answer back to heaven, ‚
'By thy grace, we will.'
Though, actually, the expression "Hold the Fort" was never used--three messages were sent: one saying "hold out," another saying "hold fast," and another saying "hold on"--Whittle's story was in essence correct.
When he reached Chicago, Bliss wrote out the music, and it was published first as sheet music, bringing immense popularity to its author-composer, and making the expression, "hold the fort" a widely-used colloquial expression. The militant tune lent itself to all sorts of parodies, and it became widely used in the prohibition, suffrage and labor movements, finding its way into labor songbooks as late as the 1950s. One of the parodies of the late 1800s was supposedly created by street people:
Hold the forks, the knives are coming,
The plates are on the way,
Shout the chorus to your neighbor,
Sling the hash this way.
Following their initial meeting in 1869, Moody never ceased urging Bliss to full-time service of the Lord. From Scotland in 1873-74, Moody sent letters: "You have not faith. If you haven't faith of your own on this matter, start out on my faith. Launch out into the deep." The ever wise counsel of Lucy Bliss was: "I am willing that Mr. Bliss should do anything that we can be sure is the Lord's will, and I can trust the Lord to provide for us, but I don't want him to take such a step simply on Mr. Moody's will."
Almost as an experiment or trial, in March, 1874, Bliss accompanied Whittle to Waukegan, Illinois for a series of three meetings in the Congregational Church. Whittle was a Wells Fargo cashier when he enlisted in the Union Army, was wounded at Vicksburg in 1863 and, while recovering in Chicago from a Vicksburg wound, he met and fastened a friendship with Moody. Moody had been working on Whittle also to consider ending his high income career as a business executive and to give himself full-time to preaching and evangelism. In the Waukegan venture, both Bliss and Whittle wanted to see if their efforts would be fruitful and if they could detect a sense of calling to full-time evangelistic work. Wednesday afternoon, March 25, an informal prayer gathering of leaders in the study turned out to be Bliss's consecration service, as he yielded to the notion that his life's work should be full-time in the Lord's service. Whittle and Bliss returned to Chicago, Bliss to resign his work and find someone to take over his conventions, and Whittle to resign his position as Treasurer of the Elgin Watch Company. The two, in close friendship and association with Moody, worked together until Bliss' death. The young musician and entrepreneur left behind a career with its promise of generous income and rising reputation, that would earn as much as $100 for a four-day convention engagement. And his Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs issued in 1875 in collaboration with Ira D. Sankey almost immediately produced royalties of $60,000. Yet, they accepted not a cent. Whittle, who himself later wrote the words to such great Gospel songs as "Showers of Blessing," and "I Know Whom I Have Believed," said Bliss never looked back.
P. P. Bliss was an attractive, winsome personality -- unpretentious, he liked to call himself "country boy." Whittle described him: "Of large frame and finely proportioned, a frank, open face, with fine, large, expressive eyes, and always buoyant and cheerful, full of the kindliest feeling, wit and good humor, with a devout Christian character, and of unsullied moral reputation...." His employer and publisher, W. F. Root said of him, "It is rare indeed to find both mind and body alike so strong, healthy and beautiful in one individual as they were in him." He inherited from his father a happy, joyous disposition which Root described thus: "His smile went into his religion and his religion into his smile. His Lord was always welcome and apparently always there in his open and loving heart."
Whittle knew him as "a very systematic and orderly man," "scrupulously neat in person and apparel, and with the sensitiveness of a woman in matters of taste." "A misspelled word in a letter, or the wrong pronunciation of a word in an address, was to him like a note out of harmony in music."
The Blisses, together, provided music for the meetings with Whittle through the latter half of 1874 and 1875. In their last year, 1876, they spent a week with Moody at Northfield, Massachusetts, where the evangelist utilized their talents in a whirlwind of eleven meetings. With Whittle, their meetings ranged from Racine and Madison, Wisconsin, to St. Louis, to Mobile, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama; Augusta, Georgia, Chicago, Kalamazoo and Jackson, Michigan, finishing for the year 1876 in Peoria, December 14. They had talked of the Blisses going to Britain with Moody and Sankey, where Bliss's "Jesus Loves Even Me" had been instantly popular, "and more than any other hymn, it became the key note of our meetings there," as Sankey wrote later.
The Blisses returned to be with family for the holidays in Rome, agreeing to meet Whittle in Chicago, December 31, and to sing at Moody's Tabernacle. In the old hometown, they spent "the happiest Christmas he had ever known" with his mother, sister, and in-laws, and leaving their children in the care of Mrs. Bliss's sister, the Blisses checked their luggage through to Chicago and boarded the train at Waverly, New York. When an engine broke down, they spent the night in a hotel, then continued their train journey in a blinding snowstorm.
As the train puffed its way through the snowy silence, just after 7:00 the evening of December 29, 1876, Bliss was observed in a parlor car with work spread out in his lap. He had a few weeks earlier written verses he titled, "I've Passed the Cross of Calvary," and over the holidays had come up with a fitting tune that he sang to family and, intending to work on it aboard the train, had placed it in his satchel for further attention. It may have been the very piece that occupied him as the train plowed through the snow. Crossing a trestle about 100 yards from the station at Ashtabula, Ohio, passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. In just seconds, the trestle fractured and the train plunged 70 feet into a watery gulf, the wooden cars captured by flames fed by kerosene-heating stoves. The lead engine made it across, a second engine two express cars and part of the baggage car rested with their weight upon the bridge, and 87 souls fell into eternity in 11 railcars of raging fire. Of 159 passengers, 92 were killed or died later of injuries sustained in the crash, and 69 were injured. It was the worst railroad tragedy to that point in American history.
Not a trace of P. P. or Lucy Bliss was ever found, not an artifact or possession. Contemporaries noted it was as though he was taken up "in a chariot of fire." At the request of Moody, the pennies of school children helped to erect a monument in Rome, Bliss's hometown. So beloved was the young couple that special memorial services were held in Chicago, in Rome, Pennsylvania, at South Bend, St. Paul, Louisville, Nashville, Kalamazoo, and Peoria. Twenty years later, in Ashtabula's Chestnut Grove Cemetery, a monument was erected to all those 'unidentified" who perished in the Ashtabula Railroad disaster. Among the names are "P. P. Bliss and wife."
Bliss' trunk had been checked through to Chicago, and in it, surviving its author, was the last song he wrote, setting to music the words of Mary G. Brainard, now so especially poignant:
"I know not what awaits me,
God kindly veils my eyes,
And o'er each step of my onward way
He makes new scenes to rise;
And ev'ry joy He sends me comes
A sweet and glad surprise.
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 with Him
Than go alone by sight."
Yet, even after his death, his ministry continued, as friends picked up fragments of his thought and finished his work -- friends such as James McGranahan, who wrote music to words Bliss had written, but which were not found until after his death:
I will sing of my Redeemer,
And His wondrous love to me;
On the cruel cross He suffered,
From the curse to set me free.
- Adams, Jr., Charles Francis. Notes on Railroad Accidents. New York, 1879.
- Griswold, Wesley S. Train Wreck! Brattleboro, VT, 1969.
- Sankey, Ira D. Sankey's Story of the Gospel Hymns, Philadelphia, 1906.
- Scheips,Paul J. Hold the Fort! The Story of a Song from the Sawdust Trail to the Picket Line, Washington, 1971.
- Whittle,D. W. Memoirs of P. P. Bliss, New York, 1877.
Visitors are welcome at the P. P. Bliss Gospel Songwriters Museum, Rome, Pennsylvania.