Philip Paul Bliss was born to singing parents in a log cabin in the northern Pennsylvania woods. He left home to work at age 11 and made a public confession of Christ at age 12. He spent his teen years in lumber camps and sawmills. But he loved to sing, and he did his best to get an education in music. His voice was remarkably full, resonant and elastic, with a range from low D-flat to high A.

With an old horse named Fanny and a twenty-dollar melodeon, Philip started traveling around as a professional music teacher. In 1858 he married Lucy Young, a musician and poet who encouraged him to develop his gifts. As a result he wrote and sold his first composition in 1864. It was well received, and he moved to Chicago the next year as an associate of music publishers Root & Cady. Presently he found himself in demand, conducting musical institutes, giving concerts, and composing Sunday school melodies. Moody championed his work, and Bliss wrote many of the gospel songs we love today: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning; Man of Sorrows—What a Name!; Jesus Loves Even Me; The Light of the World Is Jesus!; Almost Persuaded; Wonderful Words of Life. He also wrote the music to such hymns as It Is Well with My Soul.

During the Christmas holidays of 1876 the Bliss family visited his mother in Pennsylvania. On December 29, 1876 they boarded the Pacific Express in Buffalo to return to Chicago. About eight o’clock that evening in a blinding snowstorm as the train crossed a ravine, the wooden trestle collapsed. The cars, packed with holiday passengers, plunged 75 feet into the icy river and caught fire. Over a hundred people perished in the wreck, among them—Philip Bliss and his family. He was 38.

By coincidence, Philip’s trunk had been placed on another train and it arrived safely in Chicago. Inside, his friends found a last hymn:

I will sing of my Redeemer
And his wondrous love to me.
On the cruel cross he suffered
From the curse to set me free.

Tell everyone on this earth to sing happy songs in praise of the Lord. Make music for him on harps. Play beautiful melodies! Sound the trumpets and horns and celebrate with joyful songs for our Lord and King! (Psalm 98:4-6)

Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Dec. 29.

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