December 29, 2001 marked the 125th anniversary of the worst train disaster in America up to that point. In that wreck was a young couple whose bodies were never found. But you will probably find his name many times in the hymnbook in the pew in front of you. His name was Philip Paul Bliss.
He was one of God's gifts to modern Christian music. 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" (see below), "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...."
Moody first met Bliss in 1869. The evangelist was holding meetings in Wood's Museum Theatre in Chicago. Moody's approach 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 was absent that evening, the singing was weak, and from his place in the congregation, Bliss's voice, strong and confident, attracted Moody's eye. Later Moody greeted folks at the door. Bliss met him and related, "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 some music publisher friends, "Where in the world have you kept such a man for four years that he hasn't become known in Chicago?"
On the Moody Team
The association with Moody developed. In their last year, 1876, the Blisses spent a week with him at Northfield, Massachusetts, where the evangelist utilized their talents in a whirlwind of eleven meetings. With evangelist Major D. W. 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 keynote 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.
Through the Snow to Chicago
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 while 11 railcars fell in raging fire. Of 159 passengers, 92 were killed or died later from injuries sustained in the crash, and many others were severely injured. Indeed 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, Pennsylvania, Bliss's hometown. So beloved was the young couple that special memorial services were held in Chicago, in Rome, 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."
His Poignant Last Song
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."
The Origin of "Hold the Fort"
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!
Chorus - '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 the music. It was published first as sheet music, bringing immense popularity to Bliss 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."
This issue adapted and abridged from a longer article written by Dr. Thomas E. Corts, president of Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama. Dr. Corts is a native of Ashtabula, Ohio, where the tragedy occurred. For his complete, original article, visit the longer story at our website.