Philip Paul Bliss was born on July 9, 1838 in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania to parents Isaac and Lydia (Doolittle) Bliss. Philip’s ancestor, George Bliss, was the brother of Thomas Bliss, Jr. who was featured in yesterday’s Surname Saturday article. His family was both religious and musical and Philip developed a passion for music at an early age while listening to his parents sing. Early on he received little in the way of a formal education, except by his mother who taught him the Bible.
At around the age of ten, Philip, said to have been a large overgrown boy, heard and saw his first piano. One day he was in the village and passed by a house where he heard music. J.H. Hall, author of Biography of Gospel Son and Hymn Writers, related the encounter:
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, entranced, 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.
At the age of eleven he left home to make his own living by working in lumber camps and doing farm work. According to his memoirs, compiled after his death by his friend and fellow hymn writer Daniel Webster Whittle, his sister remarked, “I remember well the morning he left. All of his clothing was done up in a handkerchief and carried in his hand. When he went out of the gate, he threw back to us children two pennies and went on down the road and would not look back.”
In 1850, at the age of twelve, Philip made a formal profession of faith and was immersed in the waters of baptism. Afterwards he joined the Baptist Church, near where he was then attending school in Elk Run, Pennsylvania. In 1851 he was working on a farm and earned nine dollars a month – he was only thirteen years old. As he traveled from place to place seeking employment, Philip continued his education. In 1855 he spent the winter at a school in East Troy, Pennsylvania. The following year he worked on a farm in the summer and taught school that winter in Allegheny County, New York. By this time, he had decided to become a teacher.
During the winter of 1857 he began receiving his first formal musical training at a school taught by J.G. Towner, whose son Daniel B. Towner was a prolific hymn writer. That same winter he attended his first singing convention in Rome, Pennsylvania, led by William Batchelder Bradbury who wrote and composed hymns, such as Jesus Loves Me and the music for Just As I Am. His acquaintance with Bradbury was said to have affected Philip deeply.
During the winter of 1858 Philip was teaching at the Rome Academy. The year before he had met the family of O.F. Young, a fellow teacher and devout Christian. Mr. Young was on the school board, and being fond of Philip, invited him to live with his family. By this time, Philip had grown into manhood as described by his friend and mentor Daniel Webster Whittle:
Of large frame and finely proportioned, a handsome, 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, he became a universal favorite among young and old.
Among Philip’s students were some of Mr. Young’s own children. He and Lucy Young, eighteen and the eldest daughter, became friends, fell in love and married on June 1, 1859. Philip had little in the way of worldly goods, perhaps fifty dollars’ worth, and while Mr. Young made a good living he had nothing in the way of a dowry for the young couple. After the ceremony, Philip, being no stranger to hard work, changed clothes and went to work on the farm while Lucy went inside to help her mother in the kitchen. In his diary that day, Philip recorded: “June 1, 1859 – Married to Miss Lucy J. Young, the very best thing I could have done.”
He continued to work on his father-in-law’s farm and the following summer he attended another music school in Genesco, New York. After completing the two-month session, he embarked on a career as a music teacher. In his diary he made this note: “Old Fanny (a horse) and a twenty-dollar melodeon furnished by O.F. Young set me up in the profession.” He continued to teach during the winter months and work on his father-in-law’s farm in the summer.
Philip’s first musical composition was not a hymn but a sentimental song entitled Lora Vale which was written in 1864 and published in 1865. For the next four years, Philip worked for Root & Cady, his publisher, while holding his own conventions and performing in concerts (he was an accomplished bass-baritone singer). He continued to write songs and it was obvious he had a gift – a calling – to compose music.
In the summer of 1869, Philip met Dwight L. Moody for the first time and thereafter frequently sang at Moody’s meetings. So impressed was D.L. Moody with Philip’s gifts and talents, he wrote a series of letters to Philip urging him to “drop everything else and sing the Gospel.” Moody had also observed the work of D.W. Whittle and further recommended that the two men work together and hold meetings.
Although they were unsure as to whether or not embarking on such an endeavor was prudent, they decided to hold a few meetings. Their first meeting in Waukegan, Illinois in March of 1874 was so successful that Whittle would later remark, “We returned to Chicago praising God; Bliss to find substitutes for his conventions, and I to resign my business position.”
Philip’s reputation had been steadily growing and along with that came a steady and reliable income. He and his wife had been looking forward to settling down and enjoying the fruits of his labors, yet he felt a distinct call from God to serve as an evangelist and singer. Instead of settling down he traveled, often accompanied by Lucy.
Their fame as evangelists spread and they were eventually asked to hold meetings in England. After Moody urged them to do so, they made plans to travel there after a meeting in Chicago. Philip was scheduled to sing in Moody’s Chicago church the Sunday after Christmas. He and Lucy left Pennsylvania headed for Chicago by train. On December 29, 1876, as the train neared the town of Ashtabula, Ohio, it plunged through a bridge. Philip and Lucy, along with ninety other passengers, perished. They left behind two young sons, George and Philip Paul.
It is believed that Philip survived the initial crash, but when he returned to the wreckage to search for Lucy he was engulfed in flames and died. Found in a trunk, which miraculously survived the crash and fire, was possibly the last hymn he composed – I Will Sing of My Redeemer. Not long afterwards, the song was set to music by James McGranahan and became one of the first songs recorded on Thomas Edison’s new invention, the phonograph.
One of the most stirring hymns composed by Philip Bliss, however, was Hold The Fort, inspired by a story from the Civil War. Philip’s associate, D.W. Whittle, otherwise known as Major Whittle, had served in the Civil War. At one or their meetings, Whittle related a story from the war which inspired Philip to write the hymn.
His text that day was Revelation 2:25 and he used the illustration of a group of Union soldiers who had been tasked with guarding a large cache of supplies. A Confederate general had commanded them to surrender, but as the Union troops looked toward a distant hill they saw a signal coming from their leader, General William Tecumseh Sherman. The message read: “Hold the fort, I am coming. Sherman.”
Inspired by the story, Philip quickly wrote the hymn and sang it at the next day’s meeting. The response was enthusiastic and it soon became a favorite hymn sung in D.L. Moody-Ira Sankey meetings in both the United States and Great Britain. The host of their Great Britain meetings remarked, “If Mr. Sankey has done no more than teach the people to sing ‘Hold the Fort,’ he has conferred inestimable blessing on the British Empire, and it would have been worth all the expense of these meetings.”
Philip Bliss never considered the hymn to be one of his best efforts. However, after his death a statue was erected in Rome, Pennsylvania, bearing the inscription: “P.P. Bliss, author of ‘Hold the Fort.’” Notably, he also composed the tune for Horatio Spafford’s hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2014.