Sunday, December 11, 2016

Philip Bliss: Hymn Writer

Rome Cemetery, Rome
PA Historical Marker for Philip Bliss
The Bliss Cenotaph is large white stone
In the background
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 along Route 187, the Rome Cemetery is marked with a familiar blue Pennsylvania Historical Marker that memorializes the local resident for his contributions to musical history. Parking in the church lot across the road from the cemetery, I stepped out into the cold and crossed over to read the blue marker. Only once I took in the information presented on the sign did I wander towards the large stone in the middle of the cemetery.

The stone is a cenotaph: the people memorialized on the stone are not buried here. The remains of Philip and Lucy Bliss are buried in a common grave in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Philip was born in Clearfield County near the present day town of Penfield, the son of a Methodist pastor. Shortly after his birth his family moved to Rome. The house Philip grew up in still exists and serves as a museum.

One of the sides of the memorial
A side note: There has always been some debate on the location of Philip’s birth. Some sources place his birth at Rome, but the most sources place his birth just east of Penfield on July 9, 1838. Even the memorial in the Rome Cemetery states that he was born in Clearfield County. I believe early writers assumed that because Rome was his boyhood home that he was born here. A Pennsylvania Historical Marker noting his birthplace stands alongside Route 255 east of Penfield.

He had very little formal education, receiving most of his lessons from his devout parents, teaching him mostly from the Bible. During his childhood Philip’s father passed his love of music on 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 Bradford (town) 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.

The following year (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.

By that time, Philip had enough information and ability to become a traveling music teacher. Taking with him his melodeon, he and his old horse traveled from community to community sharing his love of music with his students.

Base of the Bliss Memorial
It tells of their deaths that happened
Due to the Ashtabula Train Disaster
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 at one shool, but continued his route of teaching in the various 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 was a recognition of his talent and provided a starting point in his life.

Also in 1864, Philip did a two week concert tour with Mr. Towner. Amazed at the success of the venture, he 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 take a step in following his life’s calling. One evening he stopped at a revival being held by Dwight L. Moody, a well-known evangelist of the time. Philip was soon leading the singing in the meetings. 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.

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. He would join forces with Major Daniel Whittle and together they lead a number of revival services throughout the Ohio Valley.

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 his two sons with his mother, the couple started home towards Chicago.

Disaster would happen when the train they were riding in 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.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker honoring Philip Bliss
Among the things that survived the wreck were the words for the only song still sung by congregations that Philip did not write the music to: (I Will Sing of) My Redeemer. 

Other famous hymns Philip 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.

As I stood there I reflected upon the love Philip had for his wife. Philip had made it safely out of the wreck and, 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.

The Rome Cemetery is located just north of town along Route 187. Parking is available across the road from the church. Their cenotaph is one of the largest stones in the cemetery and is in a straight line behind the Pennsylvania Historical Marker for Philip Bliss. As with all cemeteries, if you choose to visit Rome Cemetery, please be respectful during your visit.

While Philip's story ends here I cannot tell it without talking about the Ashtabula Train Disaster, which can be found here: The Ashtabula Train Disaster.


1 comment:

  1. Wow, I didn't know about the train wreck. Thanks for sharing.