One of the areas I visited in northeastern Ohio this past summer was the Ashtabula, Ohio area. I was in the area to see and photograph some of the covered bridges that are still standing in Ashtabula and Trumbull counties. In the late 1800’s through the first half of the 1900’s Ashtabula was a busy industrial center. Its harbor on Lake Erie brought manufacturers due to the convenience of shipping materials and goods to and from the area. The Ashtabula River brought goods from further down state to the harbor. Railroads from the east coast passed through the city on their way west.
On December 29, 1876 the largest train disaster in the United States to that time occurred in Ashtabula. That night the Pacific Express, a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway train, traveled through the area in the midst of a heavy snowstorm. The train was carrying nearly 200 people bound for different western destinations, in addition to the crew. Two locomotives were pulling 11 of a variety of types of cars. As the train crossed the Ashtabula River the iron bridge collapsed. Only the lead locomotive was able to reach safety on the far side of the bridge where it was not involved in the impending tragedy. The second locomotive separated from the first and was eventually dropped down as the last link in the chain of train cars that plunged 75 feet into the river. After the cars settled the coal fired boilers and oil lamps set the wooden train on fire. Around 64 people were able to escape with injuries. The remainder (exact count unknown) perished in the crash or the fire. Most of the victims were not identifiable. The railroad purchased a large plot in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, and the remains that could be gathered were interred. A monument listing the names of the missing passengers was later added at the site to remember those who lost their lives.
We have heard the account of how Horatio Spafford wrote the words to “It is Well with My Soul” while passing the spot in the Atlantic Ocean where his 4 young daughters lost their lives when the ship they were traveling on sank. After writing the lyrics of the hymn he contacted his friend Philip P. Bliss to ask him to write the music to accompany them.
Philip Bliss left home at a young age to try to find work. He found himself particularly interested in music and was eventually able to take enough specialized schooling to become a teacher. He became a traveling teacher, stopping in certain locations for limited periods to teach music to those who were interested. His faith in God led him to begin to write hymns. He composed the music and wrote lyrics. He began to perform sacred music concerts in addition to his teaching in schools and conventions. While attending one of Dwight Moody’s revival meetings he noticed that the singing portion of his meetings needed support that he believed he could provide. Mr. Moody gave him a chance and was grateful and impressed. He invited him to come to any of his Sunday evening meetings he could to share his musical abilities in improving the music worship. Dwight also encouraged him to become a singing evangelist, giving up his other lines of work.
He eventually did, dedicating his life to God’s service. Over the years many hymns that Philip Bliss wrote became standards used in many churches. Many of us have sung at least some of them: “Let the Lower Lights be Burning,” “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Hallelujah what a Savior,” “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” “Jesus Loves Even Me,” “Dare to Be a Daniel,” “Almost Persuaded,” “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” “Meet Me at the Fountain,” and many others. Some of the Titanic survivors reported that those in their lifeboat sang his hymn “Pull for the Shore” as they tried to reach safety.
You might be wondering what the Ashtabula train disaster has to do with Philip Bliss. He and his wife Lucy were passengers on the Pacific Express when it plunged into the Ashtabula River. He was on his way to Chicago to work with Dwight Moody in a series of evangelistic meetings. They were among the unidentified who perished in the wreck. Their trunk, which contained songs that Philip had been working on, survived. One for which he had only finished the lyrics was “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” Friend and sometime colleague James McGranahan wrote the music to accompany it.
At the time of his death Philip Bliss was only 38 years old. It is easy to focus on the tragedy of his relatively early passing. I can just as easily look at his life and say, “Wow! He made quite an impact for God in only 38 years.” His words and music have educated and strengthened many believers; more than his evangelistic meeting contributions could have touched. I pray that I, and each of us, can also make an impact for God on people that we may never meet in our earthly lives.
I was prompted to remember Philip Bliss yesterday because of a posting by one of my Facebook friends, Changsoo Kim. He is a great ukulele player and educator in Korea. He is also a believer and has arranged and performed many hymns and Christian songs. His posting yesterday was an instrumental recording of “It is Well with My Soul.” As much as I love the words of this song, this version highlights the musical talent and contributions of Philip Bliss. Please listen:
Take heart and be encouraged!