Philip Bliss: Hymn Writer

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The Bliss Cenotaph, Rome Cemetery. Insert: a close-up of one of the sides of the memorial

I’ve always wanted to visit Rome.

And one cold April morning I arrived in the small community of Rome – that is – Rome, Pennsylvania. Located in the northern part of the state, the collection of houses is spread out along Route 187 and had it not been for the sign welcoming visitors to town, I could have passed completely through the community without realizing I had arrived.

A familiar blue Pennsylvania Historical Marker, located on the northern edge of town, caught my attention and I knew I had arrived at my destination. Parking on the church lot opposite the cemetery, I crossed the road to the marker that stands guard near the entrance to the cemetery. The marker remembers the contributions of a former resident to musical history. After reading the information presented on the sign, I wandered towards the large monument that seemed out of out place among the stones in the cemetery.

The stone is a cenotaph: the people memorialized on the stone are not buried here. The couple remembered on the stone – Philip and Lucy Bliss – are buried in a common grave in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, Ohio. The monument placed July 17, 1877 in the Rome Cemetery was “erected by the Sunday Schools of the United States and Britain in response to the invitation of D. L. Moody as a Memorial to Philip P. Bliss the author of “Hold the Fort” and other Gospel Songs.”

Philip was born in Clearfield County, east of Penfield, on July 9, 1838. He was the son of a Methodist pastor and soon after his birth his family moved to Rome.

Philip had very little formal education, receiving most of his lessons from his devout parents, who taught him using the Bible. Throughout his childhood, Philip’s father passed his love of music to his son.

When he was roughly six years old, Philip’s family moved to Trumbull City in Ohio. A couple years later the family returned to Pennsylvania, settling in the town of Tioga. At the age of ten he first heard a piano being playing and upon hearing it he realized that he wanted to pursue his love of music.

Philip left home at the age of eleven and for the next five years he worked in various lumber camps. The following year he made his first public confession of his devotion to Christ at the Baptist Church in Cherry Flats, Pennsylvania. At the age of seventeen he moved to the town of Bradford to finish the requirements to become a teacher and the following year he was teaching at the school in Hartsville, New York. In 1857, his life would change when he met J.G. Towner, who ran a vocal school in Towanda. Towner gave Bliss his first formal vocal lessons. That same year Philip would attend a musical convention in Rome, Pennsylvania, where he first met William Bradley, a writer of sacred music. Bradley convinced Bliss to devote his life to writing music for the Lord’s service.

In 1858, Philip returned to his childhood home and started teaching at the Rome Academy, where he met Lucy Young, whom he married the following year. They would have two sons, George and Philip, Jr.

Around this same time, Philip became a traveling music teacher. Taking with him his melodeon, Philip and his old horse traveled from community to community sharing his love of music with his students.

In the summer of 1860, with money given to him by his wife’s grandmother, Philip attended the Normal Academy of Music in New York. Graduating from the six week intensive study program, Philip was officially recognized as a music teacher. He did not settle to teach in one school, but continued to travel among the communities in the region.

While Philip enjoyed teaching, his passion was turning to composition.

In 1864, the Bliss family moved to Chicago, where Philip worked at a variety of musical institutes becoming a noted teacher and singer. That same year he wrote the composition Lorai Vale which would be published the following year. While the piece is not one of the sacred pieces Philip is known for, it recognized his talent and provided a starting point for the new direction in his life. Philip’s hymns quickly became popular and many continue to be sung by congregations to this day. Some of the hymns he wrote the music and/or the lyrics to include: Almost Persuaded, Hallelujah, What a Saviour!, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, The Light of the World Is Jesus, Whosoever Will, Wonderful Words of Life and It Is Well with My Soul.

Also in 1864, Philip joined J.G. Towner for a two week concert tour. Amazed at the success of the venture, Philip planned a second tour but this one was a complete failure. The one positive thing that came out of his failed tour was a job offer from a Chicago based music house, Root and Cady Musical Publishers.

In 1869, Philip’s life would change when he met Dwight L. Moody, a well-known evangelist of the time. Philip had stopped at a revival being held by Moody and was soon leading the singing at Moody’s revivals. When Moody left for England in 1873, he asked Philip to go along, but he declined the offer. Moody would gain international recognition while traveling throughout England while Bliss remained in the United States.

That same winter, Moody wrote again to Bliss asking him to once again to consider devoting his life and works to the Lord. In a prayer meeting, Philip decided that this was his calling and he turned completely to missionary work, using his royalties to finance his missionary endeavors.

What Philip didn’t know was he only had a short time remaining.

On December 29, 1876, Philip’s successful career came to an end. The Bliss’s had spent the holidays with family back in Rome, Pennsylvania. Philip was planning on returning to Chicago in January to work on some new compositions, but received word that they wanted him to return sooner. Leaving their two sons with his mother, Philip and Lucy started towards their home in Chicago.

Disaster would happen when the train they were riding fell into the Ashtabula River in Ohio. Flood waters had weakened the wooden structure and while the first engine made it across successfully, the rest of the train fell into the river when the bridge collapsed. The wreck was soon on fire.

Philip managed to crawl through a window to safety, but when he realized that Lucy was trapped, he returned into the flames to be with her. They both perished in the blaze.

Among the things that survived the wreck were the words for one of the few songs that Philip wrote the lyrics for, but did not write the music to: (I Will Sing of) My Redeemer.

As I stood there I reflected upon the love Philip had for his wife. Philip had made it safely out of the wreck but had returned into the burning car in an attempt to free her. While some may question his sanity, I couldn’t help but marvel at the love he must have had to be willing to return to his wife’s side knowing he would be sacrificing his survival to be with the woman he loved.

I finished remembering Philip’s contributions to music history as the wind began to blow harder. Shivering, I left the memorial as I headed back to the warmth of the vehicle, but my mind was already wandering  back into time, to the day I visited Ashtabula, the place where Philip and Lucy perished.

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