Sixty miles north of where this author lives, there is an historic marker on the side of the road. On it are these words: “Philip P. Bliss. The great gospel-singing evangelist and gospel songwriter was born July 9, 1838, in a log house which stood a little distance from here. He lived and worked on the farm and in nearby lumber camps until the age of 16.”
Philip Bliss was one of the gifted group of preachers, evangelists, and hymn writers of the 19th century. His contemporaries included Ira Sankey, James McGranahan, D. L. Moody, D. W. Whittle, Charles Gabriel, and George C. Stibbins. Through the gospel preaching and hymns of these spiritual men, the Lord graciously saved thousands of souls.
He was the third of five children born to Isaac and Lydia Bliss. Isaac was a godly man. Of his father, Philip said this: “He was the best man I ever knew, and the Bible was the only book he ever read. He lived in constant communion with his Savior, and was always happy, always singing.” Perhaps influenced by his father’s life, Philip trusted the Lord Jesus as his Savior at an early age.
The gift of music had been placed inside of him, and when, at the age of 10, he heard a woman singing and playing the piano for the first time, he was entranced. He actually entered the home of the woman who was playing, just to listen to her; when she saw him, she shooed him away because of his dirty bare feet. But this began a love for music that lasted his entire life.
He was sent away from home at an early age to help earn a living for the family. In the winter, he worked as a school teacher. He traveled from town to town by horseback, with a portable organ, offering music lessons. He married Lucy Young before he was 20, and he then worked on her father’s farm. He also taught music to students in the evenings.
His musical interest deepened when, at age 22, he was able to attend a music academy in New York. He was credentialed as a professional music teacher, and it was at this time that he began composing simple choruses for children’s Sunday school work. He moved to Chicago where he continued writing hymns and songs. It was here that he first met the great evangelist D. L. Moody. Moody so influenced his life, that in 1874, Philip stopped writing any secular songs, and devoted his gifts entirely to the work of God. His gospel songs were sung in huge tents and at evangelistic crusades, and the Lord blessed them mightily. Many of his hymns are still sung worldwide, in many languages, before and after gospel meetings. Pick up any traditional hymnbook, and you will be amazed at how many of the songs we have known and sung all our lives, have come from the pen of this gifted writer. Some of his best known hymns are…
- Almost Persuaded
- Man of Sorrows
- Wonderful Words of Life
- Hallelujah! ‘Tis Done!
- Let The Lower Lights Be Burning
- The Light of The World is Jesus
- Whosoever Will May Come
Many of his hymns were written after he heard a preacher use a single verse, or emphasize a simple phrase. His hymns had Scriptural simplicity, with spiritual accuracy. How many might be in heaven one day because they were awakened or saved through these well-known lines? Of his hymns, one said this: “There is enough gospel in almost any one of them to lead a troubled soul to Christ; these songs were born in the closet, and at the foot of the cross.” He not only wrote the lines, but also the tunes, for almost all of his hymns. He even contributed to the tune of It Is Well With My Soul.
When he was 38, he and his wife boarded a train in Pennsylvania, The Pacific Express, to travel to Chicago, where they were to join Mr. Moody in one of his huge gospel crusades. On the 30th of December, 1876, the train was crossing over a railway trestle in Ashtabula, Ohio, In the midst of a howling snowstorm, the bridge collapsed, and the train was plunged into the 75-foot-deep ravine. Bliss was thrown free, but to his horror, the passenger compartments caught fire, with his wife still trapped on the train. His last words heard were, “if I cannot save her, I will perish with her.” He went back to the train, crawled back in to rescue her, and they both lost their lives.
The waiting gospel team in Chicago was stunned by this loss. That night, one of the preachers addressed the large crowd with these words: “My friends, God makes no mistakes. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15).
In his luggage trunk was a song that he had just composed. No one had ever seen the words. The music was soon added to it by his good friend, James McGranahan. It has become a lasting favorite. Sung in gospel meetings, worship meetings, hymn sings, and by many dear saints as they live their daily lives, these words are immortal.
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.
I will tell the wondrous story, how my lost estate to save,
In His boundless love and mercy, He the ransom freely gave.
I will praise my dear Redeemer, His triumphant power I’ll tell;
How the victory He giveth over sin, and death, and hell.
I will sing of my Redeemer, and His heavenly love to me;
He from death to life hath brought me, Son of God, with Him to be.
Sing, O sing of my Redeemer! With His blood He purchased me;
On the cross He sealed my pardon- paid the debt, and made me free.
His was a short life … just 38 years. Many of us have accomplished little for the Lord by this age. But not P. P. Bliss. From his earliest years, his life’s goal was to know his God, and to put the timeless truths of God’s grace into hymn form. His hymns are among the very finest that we love to sing. The words and his tunes have become part of us. They have lasted for almost 150 years. May the Lord exercise every one of us to fully live our lives for our dear Redeemer.