(1838 – 1876)
Between 1873 and 1874, Philip received letters from his close friend, Dwight L Moody, urging him to give up his music career and to enter the evangelistic ministry. At about the same time, Philip’s friend, Major Whittle also extended an invitation for him to devote himself wholly to evangelism and to “sing the Gospel”. Trusting the Lord to take care of his wife and two children, Philip accepted their invitations and entered the Gospel ministry.
Philip teamed up with Major Whittle and they became a popular evangelistic team. Successful crusades were held in many cities as far south as Alabama and as far north as Minneapolis. Most of the sacred songs sung at these meetings were his own compositions.
The following are stories behind three of his hymns:
o Let the Lower Lights be Burning
At one meeting, Moody was relating a story of a shipwreck. On a dark stormy night, a passenger steamer was approaching the Cleveland harbour. To locate the harbor, the pilot knew he had to keep the “two lower shore lights in line with the main beacon. ‘Are you sure this is Cleveland?’ asked the captain. ‘Quite sure, Sir,’ replied the pilot. ‘Where are the lower lights?’ the captain enquired. ‘Gone out, Sir!’ was the reply. The pilot turned the wheel, but in the darkness, he missed the channel. The boat crashed on the rocks and many lives were lost that night. Moody’s closing words were, ‘Brethren, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse; let us keep the lower lights burning.’”
Impressed by the truth of the anecdote, Philip immediately wrote the hymn, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, and set it to music. At his next meeting with Moody, Philip sang the song he had newly penned.
o Jesus Loves Even Me
Philip was attending a meeting where the hymn O How I Love Jesus was repeatedly sung. Listening to the song, he asked himself, “Have I not been singing enough about my poor love for Jesus and shall I not rather sing of His great love for me?” Stirred by this thought, he wrote this hymn which was to become a children’s favourite.
o Hold the Fort
This stirring hymn was inspired by an illustration used by Major Whittle while preaching on Revelation 2: 25: “But that which ye have already hold fast till I come”. “Major Whittle’s illustration was about a small Northern force of soldiers in charge of guarding a great quantity of supplies. They were being hard pressed by greatly superior Confederate forces. Finally, the Confederate general, General French, commanded the Federal troops to surrender. At that moment the troops saw a signal from their leader, General Sherman, on a hill some miles away which said, ‘Hold the fort, I am coming – Sherman.’ The story so captivated Bliss’ interest that he could not retire that evening until he had completed both the text and the music for this rousing gospel song. … Although Philip Bliss did not consider this to be one of his better songs, his monument at Rome, Pennsylvania, bears this inscription: ‘P P Bliss, author of Hold the Fort’”. (101 Hymn Stories by Kenneth W Osbeck).
After spending Christmas with his mother and sister in his childhood home in Pennsylvania, Philip and his wife Lucy, took the train back to Chicago on 29 December 1876. Philip was due to minister at Gospel meetings on the Sunday after Christmas in Chicago.
Tragedy struck when a railroad bridge near Ashtabula, Ohio, collapsed and their train plunged into a ravine where it caught fire. Philip survived by crawling to safety through a window. But when he returned to the wreckage to try and save his wife, he perished with her in the fire. He was 38. The couple left behind two sons aged one and four.
Philip Paul Bliss was a man who was blessed with many gifts. One of the greatest gospel musicians in the country, he wrote the lyrics and music of many well-loved hymns which have been sung by thousands of believers even to this day. Though his earthly life was brief, he was mightily used of the Lord in the Gospel ministry.
Mourning the loss of his dear friend, Moody paid this moving tribute: “I believe he was raised up of God to write hymns for the Church of Christ in this age, as Charles Wesley was for the church in his day. His songs have gone around the world, and have led and will continue to lead hundreds of souls to Christ. In my estimation, he was the most highly honoured of God, of any man of his time, as a writer and singer of gospel songs; and with all his gifts he was the most humble man I ever knew. I loved him as a brother, and shall cherish his memory, giving praise to God for the grace manifested in him, while life lasts.” (http://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/biobliss15.html)
Let us be challenged by the life of this mighty servant of God to use our gifts and abilities for the Lord’s service and the glory of His Name. Amen.