Written by: Corts, Thomas E. Posted on: 03/31/2003
by Thomas E. Corts
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
"...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 Bradbury¹s
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;
We¹ll 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 Bliss¹s 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
Another pivotal year in Bliss¹s 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. Moody¹s
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,
Bliss¹s voice, strong and confident, attracted Moody¹s 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 Moody¹s 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 Christ¹s being the Christian¹s 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
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. Moody¹s 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 Bliss¹s consecration service, as he
yielded to the notion that his life¹s work should be full-time in the Lord¹s 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 Bliss¹ 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
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
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
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.
D. W. Whittle, Memoirs of P. P. Bliss, New York, 1877.
Ira D. Sankey, Sankey's Story of the Gospel Hymns, Philadelphia, 1906.
Paul J. Scheips, Hold the Fort! The Story of a Song from the Sawdust Trail to the Picket Line,
Wesley S. Griswold, Train Wreck! Brattleboro, VT, 1969.
Charles Francis Adams, Jr., Notes on Railroad Accidents. New York, 1879.
Visitors are welcome at the P. P. Bliss Gospel Songwriters Museum, Rome, Pennsylvania
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