P. P. Bliss: A Biographical Sketch
Exodus 15:2, “The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father's God, and I will exalt him.”
PHILIP PAUL BLISS is worthy to be named as making up the trio of the chief evangelists who were used of the Lord in promoting the Great Awakening of this generation. He is the Charles Wesley of the Nineteenth Century. His was the loving genius set afire by the Spirit of God, that wrote and set to music a very large proportion of the hymns that have echoed round the world like a benediction, to the saving of countless thousands of souls.
Possessing a remarkable versatility (rather than depth) of talent, he was at once poet, musician, and singer; and in this manifold character he was thoroughly in harmony with the popular heart. He was also a manly, modest, sincere and self-forgetful man; singularly hopeful and joyful in spirit, one who was never cast down. He lived in a present realization of his blessedness as a son of God, and his heir-ship in the Kingdom. In the words of Mr. Moody, who was deeply attached to him: "His face was always bright and his heart full of Christian love." And his songs abounded in the same spirit of heavenly joy and trust, whether like a bugle blast of encouragement, as in "Hold the Fort;" or an inspiration unto unquestioning faith, as in "There is life for a look at the Crucified One;" or as a voice of pitying entreaty, as in "Almost persuaded now to believe."
P. P. Bliss was born in the village of Rome, Bradford county, PA on the 9th of July, 1838. His parents were poor, and he knew as a boy what it was to live by the sweat of the brow. His early life was uneventful, and was spent mainly out of doors, so that his mind was molded and refined by the picturesque scenery of that mountainous region. He grew up with a sound physique, and in sympathy with the common thoughts of the common people.
His musical talent found vent for itself in whistling, and in singing airs by ear. His marriage to Miss Lucy J. Young, of Rome, had the happiest influence on his life. As she was both musician and poet, she taught him how to sing and play, and incited him to study how to wed words to music. And better still, she was the agent in his conversion and union with the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1864 he removed to Chicago, and there enjoyed the instruction of Mr. George F. Root. He connected himself with the First Congregational Church of Chicago, serving as chorister, and as superintendent of the Sunday-school, where he did much good. His rich baritone voice and facility in composing sweet melodies for Sunday schools, led to his engagement by the firm of Root & Cady to introduce their works of sacred song, and he was instrumental in organizing many musical conventions in the Northwest.
Mr. Bliss excelled in the gift of embodying the soul-searching and profoundest truths of Holy Scripture in object hymns of transparent clearness, wherein the plainest and youngest of a congregation could not fail to see the Gospel message. "The Charm," his first work, was published in 1871. The "Song Tree," "Sunshine," and "The Joy," followed each other at intervals of a year.
Early in 1874, forsaking all else like Mr. Sankey, he cast in his lot with Major D. W. Whittle, and they began a tour through the Northwest as evangelists. At this time he prepared a book of "Gospel Songs," prayerfully choosing only those he had known to be blessed in times of revival. More than fifty of his own compositions were included, and deservedly. Among these were such popular favorites as "Hold the Fort," "Pull for the shore, sailor," "Let the lower lights be burning," and "Roll on, O billow of fire!" all founded on scenes in actual life; "I am so glad that Jesus loves me," "Only an armor-bearer," "More to follow," "Go, bury thy sorrow," "Hallelujah! 'tis done, I believe on the Son," "Whosoever will may come," and "The Light of the World is Jesus."
Certainly, he was an inspired Christian, a psalmist providentially raised up to further the vast revival labors of Messrs. Moody and Sankey. He gladly co-operated with the latter in preparing "Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs" in 1875, for the services in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, and was also the co-editor of "Gospel Hymns No.2," issued a year later. Of these, vast editions were sold. Yet, as he labored only for the love of God, he declined any share in the copyright, so that the entire royalty of $60,000 was distributed to worthy charities. Although he owned no dwelling, and had little means, he refused later to retain the $5,000 which Mr. Moody sought to press on him.
Such was the consistent and consecrated disciple whom the Lord called to his reward in the ripeness of his powers and usefulness. After spending Christmas, 1876, with his aged mother at Towanda, and holding praise meetings from house to house, he set out with his wife for Chicago, and was delayed by a mishap to the engine. So he became a passenger in the ill-fated train that broke through the bridge across the Ashtabula River, fell upon the bank seventy feet below, and then took fire. He would not escape by deserting his noble wife, and they went Home together, in a baptism of fire. This calamity shocked the entire nation, and came on the two evangelists in Chicago [Moody and Sankey] as a sorrow almost crushing. A collection for his two little children resulted in the receipt of $10,000 for their benefit, and a share in the copyright of his hymns was assigned them.