Artist’s depiction of the Ashtabula train bridge disaster

This Sunday, December 29, marks the 143rd anniversary of the untimely death of Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876), a popular nineteenth century hymnwriter. Circumstances surrounding Bliss’s death provide a profound lesson concerning trusting God with our unknown future. May we all be encouraged and enabled to do that with all the unknowns of the New Year to come.

Vance & Leeta at Ashtabula bridge disaster memorial

This past autumn I had the privilege of ministering one Sunday at Tri-County Bible Church in Madison, Ohio. That Sunday afternoon Pastor Joe Tyrpak of TCBC treated my wife Leeta and me to a brief, spiritually-beneficial historic tour in nearby Ashtabula, Ohio, where Philip Bliss’s young, promising life and career unexpectedly came to an abrupt end.

Pastor Joe Tyrpak and daughters at Astabula bridge disaster memorial

Bliss was born on July 9, 1838, in Rome, Pennsylvania. He was born into a very poor Christian family that was characterized by a healthy blend of strictness, singing and smiling. He professed his personal faith in Jesus Christ at age twelve during a series of Baptist revival meetings. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-one, Bliss sporadically taught school while pursuing a teacher’s certification and further formal education. He received his first voice lessons at Susquehanna Collegiate Institute at nineteen years of age, and immediately showed signs of exceptional musical ability. At age twenty-one Bliss married Lucy Young, and the newlywed couple joined the Rome Presbyterian Church.

Philip Bliss
Lucy (Young) Bliss

Bliss eventually moved to Chicago where he taught and published music under a musical agent. At age thirty Bliss met Dwight Moody, a zealous young evangelist, who immediately invited him to help lead the Sunday evening singing at his church. For the next four years Bliss served as the choir director and evangelistic Sunday School administrator at First Congregational Church in Chicago. During those years he published what proved to be his two most popular hymns during his lifetime, “Hold the Fort and “Jesus Loves Even Me.”

At that time Bliss also produced what is widely regarded as his most famous hymn today, “Almost Persuaded.” He shared the song in a series of revival meetings in Waukegan, Illinois, where Bliss ministered with evangelist Daniel Whittle. After that set of meetings, and following years of encouragement from Moody to do so, Bliss and Whittle committed themselves to give up their present jobs in order to devote themselves to fulltime evangelistic ministry.

Of that decision, Bliss wrote in his journal: “Now I am full persuaded that God calls me to give my time and energies to writing and singing the Good News. I am constrained by what Christ is and has been to me, to offer all my powers directly to His sweet service. Major Whittle goes with me to preach the Gospel while I try to sing it.” Whittle and Bliss went on to become the second most prominent evangelistic team in America in that era, ranking only under Moody and his song leader Ira Sankey.

In his abbreviated lifetime Bliss wrote the words and/or music for over 300 sacred songs. Besides those already mentioned, his other best-known hymns included “Dare to Be a Daniel,” “Hallelujah, What a Savior,” “I Gave My Life for Thee” (lyrics by Frances Havergal), “It Is Well with My Soul” (words by Horatio Spafford), “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” “The Light of the World Is Jesus,” “Whosoever Will” and “Wonderful Words of Life.” For those of us who grew up singing Gospel hymns, all or most of these are familiar to us. For those of you who are not acquainted with these hymns, suffice it to say that for nearly a century they were among the most beloved songs sung by Evangelical Christians in America and some other English-speaking countries. Many modern hymnals of various denominations (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and others) still include several of Bliss’s hymns.

Bliss collaborated with Sankey in publishing a new hymnal in 1875 entitled Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs. Within a year the royalties for Bliss and Sankey exceeded $60,000 (equaling about $1.5 million today)! Moody encouraged the Blisses to use a portion of those royalties to build a house for themselves. The Blisses, instead, gave all the proceeds to support further Gospel outreach.

In December, 1876, just two and a half years after Bliss and Whittle began their fulltime evangelistic ministry, they were invited to come to Chicago to take over a series of revival meetings that Moody and Sankey were leading. Those services regularly had more than 10,000 people in attendance. Moody and Sankey were worn out and in need of some holiday time with their families. Whittle and Bliss were to assume leadership of the meetings on Sunday, December 31. After celebrating Christmas with their sons Phil (age 4) and George (age 2), Philip and Lucy Bliss bid the boys farewell and boarded a train in Waverly, New York, on Wednesday, December 27. They were headed for Chicago, where they were to meet Whittle.

Around 7:30 that Friday evening, December 29, the eleven-car train carrying the Blisses and about 150 other passengers was approaching Ashtabula. Just a few hundred yards from the train station, the train was slowly crossing an iron bridge when the entire structure collapsed. All but the lead engine of the train plummeted seventy feet into the icy river gorge below. The wreckage quickly caught fire and within moments the train cars were engulfed in flames.

Ninety-two of the passengers aboard the train perished, making this the worst train disaster in American history until the Great Train Wreck of 1918 claimed over 100 lives. Philip and Lucy Bliss both died in the Ashtabula tragedy. They were among those individuals whose remains were never positively identified after the wreck and ensuing fire.

Smoldering train wreckage from Ashtabula, Ohio, bridge disaster

When Whittle later opened Bliss’s suitcase, which arrived safely in Chicago, he found two hymns, “My Redeemer” and “He Knows.” The former was afterward set to music and given its more-familiar title “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” “He Knows” was written by Mary Brainard, and Bliss had just set it to music. Because of the song’s obvious relevance to the Blisses tragic deaths, Whittle selected it to be sung as the closing hymn at their funeral on January 7, 1877. The hymn is rarely sung today, but its words are well worth pondering:

1. I know not what awaits me, God kindly veils my 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.

Chorus:

Where He may lead I’ll follow, My trust in Him repose; And every hour in perfect peace, I’ll sing, “He knows, He Knows”; And every hour in perfect peace, I’ll sing, “He knows, He knows.”

2. 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 through the silence comes, His loving, “Trust in Me!”

3. Oh, 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.

4. 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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Nearly all the information for this Perspective on Philip Bliss was gleaned from Joe Tyrpak’s excellent written summary of the hymnwriter’s life and death, with which Joe provided us as part of the above-mentioned historic tour. Joe’s account was based in part on information from Thomas Corts’ book Bliss and Tragedy: The Ashtabula Railway-Bridge Accident of 1876 and the Loss of P.P. Bliss (published 2003 by Samford University Press). Copyright 2019 by Vance E. Christie

Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby

Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) is well-known as the prominent blind hymnwriter of the nineteenth century. Some of her hymns are still sung today, including “Blessed Assurance,” “Redeemed,” “To God Be the Glory” and others. The story of her brush with death and subsequent conversion as a young woman is less well known.

At age fifteen Fanny entered the New York Institution for the Blind (NYIB), where she was a student for eight years before becoming a teacher there in 1843. In May of 1849, when Fanny was twenty-nine years old, a cholera epidemic broke out in New York City. Students at the NYIB were given an early dismissal to summer vacation that month, thinking they would be safer away from the city. But a number of students were unable to return to their homes elsewhere. So Fanny and some other faculty members decided to remain, being convinced that God would take care of them and they could be of some help.

By mid-July over 2,200 New Yorkers had perished from the dread illness. In the end, twenty members of the NYIB contracted cholera and ten died from it. Fanny assisted the Institution’s physician, Dr. Clements, in making pills to try to fight the sickness. A school just one block from the NYIB was turned into a cholera hospital. The Institution’s sick were taken there, and both Clements and Fanny served there. Frequently as she sat by a patient’s bedside at night the stillness was shattered by the harsh cry of a city official outside the door of some bereaved home nearby, “Bring out your dead.”

After several nights of almost no sleep near the end of July, Fanny felt like she might be coming down with the sickness. But after taking a generous dose of medication and getting a long night of sleep she felt fully restored. Hearing of her close call, however, the NYIB’s superintendent sent Fanny to her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, for the remainder of the summer. After the first hard frosts of fall it was deemed safe for people to return to New York City, and the Institution reopened in early November.

Fanny Crosby as a young woman

Fanny Crosby as a young woman

Fanny’s experiences in the cholera epidemic brought her face to face with her own mortality and likely played a part in life-changing spiritual developments that took place in the months to follow. Dating back to her first years at the NYIB she had attended the class meetings at the Eighteenth Street Methodist Church. In those early days at the Institution she was timid and never spoke in public if she could at all avoid doing so. She would attend the class meetings and play piano or guitar for them on the condition that she would not be called on to speak. Though Fanny had been raised in a devout Christian home before coming to the NYIB, by her own admission she had by this time grown somewhat indifferent toward spiritual matters.

In the autumn of 1850 revival meetings were held at the Methodist Broadway Tabernacle on Thirtieth Street. Fanny and some others from the NYIB attended the meetings each night. Twice when the invitation was given at the close of the service, she went forward, seeking peace from her inner spiritual struggles, but found none. Finally on November 20 she went to the altar alone. As she prayed, the congregation began to sing Isaac Watts’ grand old hymn, “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?” When they reached the great words of consecration contained in the last verse – “Here, Lord, I give myself away” – Fanny expressed that commitment as the desire of her heart, yielding her life to Jesus Christ. Immediately her “very soul was flooded with a celestial light” and she sprang to her feet, literally shouting, “Hallelujah!”

New York Institution for the Blind

New York Institution for the Blind

A week later she gave a public testimony at the class meeting of her recent conversion. When a good friend challenged her to make a complete surrender of her will to God, she did so by promising to do her duty whenever the Lord should make it clear to her. A few weeks later she was asked to close one of the meetings with a brief prayer. Her first thought was, “I can’t.” To which her conscience responded, “But your promise.” Some sixty years later she testified, “And from that hour I believe I have never refused to pray or speak in a public service, with the result that I have been richly blessed.”

The Lord used Fanny to bring great glory to Himself and abundant blessing to countless people. She went on to write several thousand hymns and to carry out a broad-ranging speaking ministry. Well into her eighties she traveled widely, ministering in churches, Bible conferences, rescue missions, YMCAs and various other settings. Fanny never tired of testifying, through her songs and speaking, of what Christ had done for her or of pointing others to Jesus as their Savior.

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Women of Faith and Courage by Vance ChristieFanny Crosby’s fascinating life story is related more fully in my book Women of Faith and Courage (Christian Focus, 2011). The story of her life is shared in her own words in Fanny J. Crosby, An Autobiography (Baker, 1995, and Hendrickson, 2015). A more comprehensive account of her life and ministry is provided in Edith Blumhofer’s Her Heart Can See, The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby (Eerdmans, 2005).

Copyright 2017 by Vance E. Christie