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Among hymn-books that have exerted a profound influence over the spiritual lives of Christian people none has probably achieved greater fame or wider circulation than the volume known as Gospel Hymns. It was issued in a series of six editions, but now is usually found combined in a single book.

Philip P. Bliss, the subject of this chapter, was the first editor of Gospel Hymns. Associated with him in the publication of the first two editions was the renowned Ira D. Sankey, who gained world-wide fame through his evangelistic campaigns with Dwight L. Moody.

The story of the life of Bliss reads like romance.

Like many a poor lad endowed with love for the artistic, he was compelled to struggle almost all his life for the opportunity that finally came to him. Born at Rome, Pa., in 1838, he early revealed a passion for music when, as a boy, he made crude instruments on which he tried to produce tones.

The story is told of how Philip, when a ragged and barefoot boy of ten years, heard piano music for the first time. So entranced did he become that he entered the home unbidden, and stood listening at the parlor door. When the young woman at the instrument ceased playing, the child who hungered for music cried:

“O lady, play some more!”

Instead of complying with the request, the startled young 442 woman is said to have invited young Bliss to leave the house forthwith!

Although he received practically no musical education, except from occasional attendance at a singing school, he wrote his first song at the age of twenty-six years. It was called “Lora Vale,” and because of its popular reception, Bliss was encouraged to devote all his time to writing songs and giving concerts.

Bliss usually wrote both the words and music of his hymns. His work was done very quickly, the inspiration for the whole song, text and melody, being born in his mind at once.

Any incident of an unusually impressive nature would immediately suggest a theme to his mind. He heard the story of a shipwreck. The doomed vessel was abandoned, and the captain ordered the sailors to exert their utmost strength to “pull for the shore.” Immediately he wrote his well-known song with the words as a refrain.

One night he listened to a sermon in which the preacher closed with the words, “He who is almost persuaded is almost saved, but to be almost saved is to be entirely lost.” He went home from the service and wrote “Almost persuaded,” a hymn that is said to have brought more souls to Christ than anything else Bliss ever composed.

In 1870 he heard Major Whittle, an evangelist, tell the story of how the message, “Hold the fort!” was signalled to the besieged garrison at Allatoona Pass. The words suggested the passage from Revelations 2:25, “That which ye have, hold fast till I come.” The result was one of his most famous Gospel songs, the chorus of which runs:

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,”

Jesus signals still,

Wave the answer back to heaven,—

“By Thy grace we will.”


Other popular songs by Bliss are “Whosoever heareth, shout, shout the sound,” “I am so glad that our Father in heaven,” “There’s a light in the valley,” “Sing them over again to me,” “Let the lower lights be burning,” “Free from the law, Oh, happy condition,” “Down life’s dark vale we wander” and “Where hast thou gleaned today?”

These songs, like the greater number of the Gospel Hymns, do not possess high literary merit. The most that can be said for them is that they are imaginative and picturesque. They are usually strong in emotional appeal. The same is true of the tunes composed for them. They are usually very light in character, with a lilt and movement that make them easily singable, but lacking in the rich harmony found in the standard hymns and chorales. No doubt there will always be a certain demand for this type of religious song, and a few of the Gospel Hymns will probably live on, but the present trend in all of the principal Christian denominations is toward a higher standard of hymnody.

A terrible tragedy brought the life of the Gospel singer to a close in his thirty-eighth year. He had visited the old childhood home at Rome, Pa., at Christmas time in 1876, and was returning to Chicago in company with his wife when a railroad bridge near Ashtabula, Ohio, collapsed on the evening of December 29. Their train plunged into a ravine, sixty feet below, where it caught fire, and one hundred passengers perished miserably.

Bliss managed to escape from the wreckage, but crawled back into a window in search for his wife. That was the last seen of him.

The song-writer’s first name was originally “Philipp.” He disliked the unusual spelling, however, and in later years he used the extra “P” as a middle initial.

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