by Al Maxey

Issue #283 ------- January 11, 2007
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

William Wordsworth {1770-1850}

Philip P. Bliss
The Singing Evangelist

He has been characterized by some as the "second most famous Christian song writer in history," taking a backseat only to Fanny J. Crosby [see my tribute to her in Reflections #188]. M. Laird Simons, in the year 1877, stated this great man made up "the trio of the chief evangelists who were used of the Lord in promoting the Great Awakening of this generation." Simons called him "the Charles Wesley of the 19th century." Edward S. Ninde, in 1921, said that the hymn Almost Persuaded, which was written by this man, "is said to have brought far more souls to Jesus Christ than any other song he ever composed" [The Story of the American Hymn].

The man of whom I speak, of course, is none other than Philip P. Bliss, who was, without a doubt, one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. He was born in the little village of Rome, Pennsylvania on July 9, 1838. His family was very poor, living in a small log cabin and working by the sweat of their brows to make ends meet. His parents were quite religious, however, being members of the Methodist Church, and each day witnessed times of family devotionals, prayers, and the singing of songs of praise unto the Lord. These were some of Philip's earliest memories, and they had a lasting impression upon him. He would sit and listen joyfully and attentively to the sound of his parents singing, and soon developed a love of music. Although he received no formal secular education during his early years at home, he was nevertheless tutored by his mother, with the Bible being the primary text for the fundamentals of his early education, such as reading and writing. Thus, God's holy, inspired Word early on had a powerful influence upon his life. His parents were fond of saying of Philip, "He loved music like a bird." He took to it naturally, and as an adult, according to one biographer, "his voice developed into a bass of great range and beauty." Another biographer observed, "He had a deep bass voice of wonderful compass and pathos, yet with all his strength he possessed the delicate feeling and tenderness of a woman."

Bliss was unable to afford musical instruments as a child, so "the only things he could play melodies on were reeds plucked from the marshes." He was ten years old when he saw and heard a piano for the first time. To help the family financially, young Philip would often go into town and sell vegetables from their garden door to door. One day, while thusly employed, he heard the sound of a piano being played from inside one of the houses. He was so overcome by the music that he wandered right into the house and stood there at the parlor door listening to a young woman playing. When she spotted him, she was startled, and stopped playing. He pleaded, "O lady, please play some more!" However, this lady, seeing this barefoot, ragged child, simply exclaimed angrily, "Get out of here with your big, bare feet!" Crushed, Philip immediately left. However, he never forgot the sweet sounds coming from that instrument of music. It convicted him all the more that he wanted music to be a part of his life, though he could not as yet perceive what that role would be.

The next year (1849), at the tender age of only eleven, Philip Bliss left home to earn his own living. It is said he departed with all of his earthly possessions tied up in a handkerchief. For the next couple of years he worked on a farm, doing the work of a man, for which he was paid $9 per month. It was during this time, when only twelve, that he made his first public confession of Jesus Christ and was immersed. This was 1850. He then began attending a Baptist church that was nearby. Bliss had always been very spiritually-focused as a youth, and just naturally sought out such fellowship. As opportunity presented itself, he also began taking some classes at the local school. At the age of fourteen he left the farm and became an assistant cook in a lumber camp. The next year he was cutting logs, and then moved into the sawmill. One biographer stated that Bliss was well-suited to this hard labor, as "he possessed a strong physique" and was thus able to keep pace with the seasoned lumberjacks. "Young Philip remained strong in the Lord amongst the rowdy, laboring men of the camp, although it was not easy, but the spiritual implants of his godly parents were now bearing fruit" [Ed Reese, from the Christian Hall of Fame biography series].

In the year 1855, at the age of seventeen, Bliss decided to finish the classes required for him to become a school teacher. This he did in fairly short order, working on a farm to support himself at this time. The next year, he was made the schoolmaster at Hartsville, New York. It was the following year, 1857, that he met J. G. Towner, who was the master of a singing school in Towanda, Pennsylvania. Towner spotted Philip's natural talent immediately and began providing him with his first formal voice lessons. Later that same year he helped the young Bliss attend a musical convention in Rome, Pennsylvania (the place of his birth). While at this convention he met William B. Bradbury (1816-1868), one of the best known composers of Christian music at that time. A few of his musical compositions are: 'Tis Midnight, And On Olive's Brow -- Savior, Like A Shepherd Lead Us -- He Leadeth Me -- My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less -- Soldiers Of Christ, Arise -- Sweet Hour of Prayer -- Just As I Am -- Jesus Loves Me -- and countless other Christian classics that have been sung for many generations, and whose well-known melodies fill our memories.

By the end of that convention in Rome, Pennsylvania, Bradbury and Bliss had become quite close, and Bradbury convinced the young Philip to seriously consider giving his life into full-time service to the Lord in the area of Christian music. Therefore, Bliss began to try his hand at composing hymns (both the words and music). His very first composition he sent to George F. Root (of the firm Root & Cady in Chicago) with the request, "If you think this song is worth anything, I would appreciate having a flute in exchange for it." Apparently it was, for Philip received his flute.

In the year 1858, at only twenty years of age, Philip Bliss was appointed a school teacher at the Rome Academy in his own hometown. While teaching at this institution, he boarded with the family of O. F. Young, which would turn out to be one of the most fortunate moves of his life. He soon fell deeply in love with the daughter of this man, Lucy J. Young, who was also one of his own sister's best friends. They were married on June 1, 1859 [a picture of Lucy, which was taken around the time of the marriage, appears above]. Not only a strong Christian girl, Lucy was also a musician and poet, and she would prove to be a devoted helpmeet to him throughout his life of ministry in song. Not long thereafter, Bliss heard about the Normal Academy of Music located at Geneseo, New York. He desperately wanted to attend, but his wages were only $13 a month. Thus, Lucy's grandmother, seeing how deeply Philip longed to attend this school, produced a stocking filled with silver coins totaling more than $30, which she gave to him so that he might go to this music school. Upon completion of this difficult six week course of instruction, Bliss was certified as a music teacher. He began traveling about the area, with a $20 melodeon and an old horse, teaching music classes to whomever was interested. In time, he came to be known as quite an authority on music.

In the year 1864, Philip and Lucy Bliss moved to Chicago. He taught numerous classes on music while there, and his fame as a teacher and singer began to spread. He was also producing a number of hymns at this time. In the summer of 1865 he went on a concert tour that lasted two weeks, and for which he was paid $100. He and Lucy were amazed that so much money could be made in such a short time, and he began to see this as an avenue where he could not only serve the Lord but also support his family. His dreams were almost shattered, however, when he was drafted into the Union Army. However, after a couple of weeks it was decided that they did not need his services after all (the war being almost over). Therefore, Bliss was release to return to his home. He was then offered a position with the Chicago music publishing firm Root & Cady at a salary of $150 per month, which he readily accepted. For the next eight years (1865 to 1873) he and his wife, sponsored by the above firm, held countless musical conventions, singing schools, and spiritual concerts. During this same time he affiliated himself with the First Congregational Church in Chicago, where he served as chorus director and superintendent of the Sunday School.

During his time with the publishing firm of Root & Cady, during the summer of 1869, Philip Bliss happened to pass by a church one evening where Dwight L. Moody was preaching a revival. He decided to go in and listen to the message. That evening, D. L. Moody was without a musical director, and the singing from the audience was rather poor. However, Philip's voice rang out above the others to such an extent that it attracted the attention of Moody, who sought out Bliss and urged him to come to his Sunday evening meetings and help with the singing. This he did. In 1873, D. L. Moody wrote Bliss from England, and then later from Scotland, urging him to become his music director. Bliss declined. Not long afterward, though, Bliss did decide to commit himself to full-time evangelistic ministry. He joined together with Major D. W. Whittle, a popular evangelist of the day, and a preaching/singing team was born that would long be remembered, even after both had passed from this life. Their first gospel meeting was held in Waukegan, Illinois, on March 24-26, 1874. It was during this meeting that Philip Bliss sang one of his most famous hymns -- Almost Persuaded -- which had a tremendous effect upon the crowd. Some present would later write, "The Holy Spirit seemed to fill the hall" when Bliss sang that particular hymn. The day after the meeting, when Bliss reflected upon how powerful the impact was upon the audience, he knelt in prayer and vowed to God to surrender everything so that he might serve Him fully.

The fame of the preaching/singing team of Whittle and Bliss (and it should be noted that his wife Lucy was always there with him, constantly assisting him in his work) grew and grew, until finally it was requested they bring their evangelistic ministry to England. Moody urged them to accept this invitation, and so they agreed. Their plans were to hold a meeting in Chicago, at Moody's congregation, shortly after Christmas, and then leave for a preaching tour of England. On November 24, 1876, Philip Bliss sang at a large gathering of ministers hosted by D. L. Moody in Chicago's Farwell Hall. Over a thousand preachers of the gospel were present. It was at this gathering he first sang a new song for which he had written the music -- It Is Well With My Soul. Bliss then conducted an evangelistic service at the Michigan state prison, with over 800 inmates present. It was later reported that many of these inmates wept openly as he sang another of his hymns: Hallelujah, What A Savior!

Philip and Lucy Bliss spent the Christmas holidays of 1876 with his mother and sister at Towanda and Rome, Pennsylvania. Their two small sons were also with them -- Philip Paul (age: 1) and George (age: 4). After Christmas he wired a telegram to D. L. Moody, "Tickets for Chicago, via Buffalo and Lake Shore Railroad. Baggage checked through. Shall be in Chicago Friday night. God bless you all forever." Deciding at the last minute to leave the two small boys with his mother, as Philip and Lucy would be quite busy with the large event upcoming, they boarded the train for Chicago on December 29, 1876. There was a huge snow storm taking place that day, with drifts piled high. It was later reported by passengers that the train never was able to gain any significant speed during the journey. There were eleven coaches pulled by two engines, with about 160 people aboard. In that number were Philip and Lucy Bliss. At eight o'clock that evening, while crossing a ravine that was 75' deep, the bridge gave way and the entire train, except for the first engine, plunged into the depths below. This was just outside the town of Ashtabula, Ohio.

Five minutes after the train fell, fire broke out and, fanned by gale force winds, quickly consumed the wreckage. Two out of every three passengers aboard that train perished in the fall and the fire. According to a dispatch to the Chicago Tribune the next day, "When morning came, all that remained of the Pacific Express was a row of car wheels, axles, brake-irons, truck-frames and twisted rails lying in a black pool at the bottom of the gorge. There are no remains that can ever be identified. The three charred, shapeless lumps recovered up to noon today are beyond all hope of recognition. Old or young, male or female, black or white, no man can tell. For the rest, there are piles of white ashes in which glisten the crumbling particles of calcined bones." According to an eye-witness (who happened to be one of the surviving passengers), who was in the car next to the one containing Philip and Lucy Bliss, "When the train fell, Mr. Bliss succeeded in crawling through a window, supposing he could pull his wife after him. But she was jammed fast and every effort of his was unavailing. The car was all jammed up, and the lady was caught in the ironwork of the seats. Finding that he could not save her, he stayed there with her and died." Simons wrote, in 1877, "He would not escape by deserting his noble wife, and they went Home together, in a baptism of fire." A newspaper reported, "Mr. Bliss succeeded in extricating himself and crawling to safety through a window. Finding that his wife was pinned under the ironwork of the seats, he returned into the car, bravely remaining at her side, trying to extricate her as the flames took their toll. All that remained was a charred mass. No trace of their bodies was ever discovered." Major D. W. Whittle, who went immediately to the scene of this great tragedy, and who remained there for three days searching for any sign of personal effects, later wrote, "We found nothing. They have gone, as absolutely and completely gone as if translated like Enoch."

Memorial services were held throughout the nation in honor of Philip Bliss and his wife Lucy. A monument to him was also erected in Rome, Pennsylvania. On December 31, D. L. Moody officiated at a memorial service in Chicago at which 8,000 gathered inside the hall, and another 4,000 outside in the cold, to pay tribute to this man and his wife. It was said, "No private citizen's death brought more grief to the nation!" Moody declared, "His face was always bright and his heart full of Christian love." A collection was taken for the two surviving children of Philip and Lucy Bliss, and over $10,000 was raised for them. They were also assigned what their father had always refused to accept for himself -- a share in the copyright royalties of his many beloved hymns, which included such favorites as: Hallelujah! What A Savior -- I Gave My Life For Thee -- It Is Well With My Soul -- I Will Sing Of My Redeemer -- Wonderful Words Of Life -- Let The Lower Lights Be Burning -- More Holiness Give Me -- and countless others. When the baggage that had been sent ahead arrived, the words of a newly penned hymn by P. P. Bliss was found among his belongings. It was the last hymn he ever wrote. The words are a fitting tribute to this great man, who walked by faith, not by sight!

I know not what awaits me,
God kindly veils mine eyes;
And o'er each step of my onward way
He makes new scenes to rise;
And every joy He sends me comes
A sweet and glad surprise.

One step I see before me.
'Tis all I need to see,
The light of heaven more brightly shines,
When earth's illusions flee;
And sweetly thro' the silence comes
His loving "Follow Me."

O blissful lack of wisdom,
'Tis blessed not to know;
He holds me with His own right hand,
And will not let me go,
And lulls my troubled soul to rest
In Him who loves me so.

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.

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Readers' Reflections

Very Special Request --- Reflections readers, there is a young couple doing a tremendous work for our Lord as missionaries in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Their names are Jeff & Katie Forbess (his blog site is featured in the section above). I have personally known Jeff Forbess since his early elementary school days, and am good friends with his parents (his father is a minister/elder in Missouri). The whole family used to be members of the congregation for which I preached in Santa Fe, NM many years ago (his father serving as a deacon there). This young couple, Jeff & Katie, have just learned that they are going to be losing a huge portion of their monthly financial support for this mission effort, and, if their work in Bolivia is to continue, they are really going to need some help. If any of you know of individuals or congregations who may be looking to become involved in a powerful work abroad, I would urge you to put them in touch immediately with the Forbess family. They can examine their work at the blog site above (which includes pictures), or they can email them personally at for further information. At the very least, please keep this devoted young family in your prayers that God may provide the means for them to continue in this work. Thank you! --- Al Maxey

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, I just finished your article on Herod Agrippa II and his statement to Paul. It was well done, and I have shared that same viewpoint for a very long time. However, as others may have already pointed out to you, I believe you made an error in the second paragraph when you said that Herod Philip ordered the death of John the Baptist. I believe the NT makes clear that it was Herod Antipas. I continue to agree with you about 98% of the time, though!

From a Reader in Pennsylvania:

Dear Al, I very much enjoy reading and being challenged each week by your Reflections. I also have your book Down, But Not Out. That, along with your published debates, were quite enlightening and very much appreciated. Would you please send me all four volumes of your Reflections on CD. The check is enclosed.

From a Reader in Michigan:

Dear Bro. Al, Thanks for another illuminating treatise. The way in which you presented all the background information on Paul's defense before Herod Agrippa II really made the story come alive.

From a Pastor in California:

Brother Al, Thanks for a well-researched piece on Agrippa II. It saved me some research time in preparing for my Sunday School class in a few weeks as we study through the book of Acts. It appears that the collective wisdom of your readers is unanimous and emphatic -- avoid Daniel Coe like the plague!! Even Jesus and the apostles shook the dust from their sandals and went where they had an open-minded audience. Bro. Al, keep on preaching and living grace. You're making a difference in many lives and churches. Best wishes for a great 2007, brother.

From a Minister in Oregon:

Brother Al, I concur with what many of your readers have said. My jaw also is still bruised from hitting the floor after reading Daniel Coe's article Jesus and Legalism. Talk about not reading a passage in context. That was just about the absolute worst interpretation of a biblical passage that I have ever heard. No wonder his brethren on the Contending for the Faith web site were silent. Al, your article this week was a personal shocker. Who knew that Agrippa II wasn't almost persuaded?! I surely didn't. I think maybe we can see by this that these "quickie conversions" that are sought after at Gospel Meetings, and through door-knocking campaigns, might not be the best way to truly win souls for Jesus after all. It takes a relationship with a person to gain the trust necessary to really bring them to Christ and change their lives forever. Great stuff, Al. Thanks!

From a Reader in Illinois:

Dear Bro. Al, I've greatly enjoyed your Reflections now for over a year. I stumbled upon your web site while processing out of the Seventh Day Adventist church. Some of the legalistic dilemmas you confront in your articles struck home. It appears that legalists everywhere have the very same fear-based personalities, laced with black and white thinking.

From a New Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, Will you send me your weekly Reflections? Thanks! I preached for about 27-28 years, and am now semi-retired near Lubbock, Texas. I know that a legalistic attitude is bad for the church, but can't we hold to Truth and accept the grace of God at the same time?!

From a Minister in California:

Brother Al, I pulled out an old issue of IMAGE magazine the other day (July/August, 1994) to recheck some facts about a blog article I intend to write for next week, and I noticed that you had an article published in that particular issue titled "A Time of Worship Reformation." The only article I've ever had published was in that very same issue. How interesting that long before I knew you and began reading your Reflections, I had read you in IMAGE and liked what you had to say there as well.

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