Chapter 8 How we got our Popular Gospel Song

While psalms and hymns stretch far back across the centuries, one department of it is of fairly recent origin. Gospel singing, as has already been observed, is a modern institution, and America can rightly be claimed as its birth-place. In the days of long ago the negroes of the Southern States chanted their own simple melodies, and in their own crude way were expressing the feelings and aspirations of the heart toward God. This particular type of negro is naturally a lover of song, and when, on occasions, he came to express his emotions, words and music followed with remarkable smoothness. From these old melodies, musicians of a later day have drawn an inspiration, as in the case of Ira D. Sankey’s famous hymn “The ninety and nine,” the melody of which is said to have had its origin in an old Southern plantation song, called “A wonderful stream is the river of time.” The extraordinary way in which Sankey composed it anew to Miss Clephane’s little poem is referred to in another chapter.

The question may arise: What constitutes an acceptable and useful Gospel song? The views of the writer are so well delineated by the graphic pen of Charles H. Gabriel of America, the King of Gospel Hymn Writers, that we shall borrow his language. “First, the text must be systematically constructed be spiritual and devotional; it should begin with an immediate declaration of subject, followed by an explication presented in a logical and intelligent manner. Gospel music is the language of the heart the expression of hope, trust, longing, sorrow, joy and even despair of the soul. It is the spontaneous overflow of happiness and a healing balm for the wound of life; it is both sermon and song, praise and prayer oblivion and remembrance.”

No one would venture to assert that American hymnology contains anything to be compared with the masterpieces of English collections. Philip Phillips popularly known as the “Singing Pilgrim,” in the early seventies first brought to this country from America this new class of sacred music, which was subsequently used by Moody and Sankey in the early days of their British campaign. It may not be generally known that Newcastle-on-Tyne was the birth-place of the now famous Sankey hymn book. The hymns and tunes used at that period in the various places of worship in this country did not appear to be adapted for evangelical services, and the American evangelists adopted Philip Phillips’ book, which contained many American hymns and some English tunes. This collection started in a very modest form, but in course of time, as new hymns were being written, fresh editions were published, until Sacred Songs and Solos gained a popularity among the masses that few of its successors enjoyed.

Writing at a later period, Sankey gives some interesting information bearing on the early days of his hymn book. The evangelists had only been a short time in England, and were conducting meetings in the provinces, when Sankey wrote to London offering to give his selection of songs to the publishers of Philip Phillips’ hymn book, Hallowed Songs, free of charge if they would print them. This they respectfully declined. About this time, Mr. R. C. Morgan, of The Christian, on hearing of the refusal of the other publishers to accept the hymns, offered to take them and publish them in pamphlet form. So Mr. Sankey cut from his scrap book twenty-three pieces, rolled them up, and wrote on them the words “Sacred Songs and Solos, sung by Ira D. Sankey at the meetings of Moody of Chicago.” “This book, together with the edition of words only,” says Mr. Sankey, “has now I grown into a volume of twelve hundred pieces, and up to the present time has possibly the largest sale of any book except the Bible.”

It is interesting to learn that, even in these days of many hymn books, Sacred Songs and Solos has not diminished in public favour, for up to the end of last year (1930), the sale had reached the unparalleled total of more than seventy million copies.

The visit of the American evangelists to this country, when the famous Sankey hymn book was first introduced to the world, received tremendous publicity. Wherever they went their reception was usually of the most cordial nature, while their hymns were sung and referred to in the most unlikely places. For instance, during a circus performance in Dublin, one clown, with a pretended air of dejection, said to another, “I say, I feel quite Moody to-night; how do you feel?” “Oh,” responded the other, “I’m rather Sankeymonious.” Contrary to what was expected, this by-play was not only met with hisses, but the whole audience rose to their feet and joined with tremendous effect in singing, “Hold the fort for I am coming!”

A story is told connected with a visit, about this particular time, of the late Professor Blackie to Carlisle. Upon his departure from the Border city, the professor was given by his hostess a parcel, with strict injunctions not to open it until well on his journey; when he did so, he discovered it contained some bread and cheese, and one of Moody and Sankey’s hymn books. Professor Blackie proved equal to the occasion, and replied to his hostess:

“For the body, cheese,
For the soul, Sankey;
For both of which, madam,
I heartily thank ye:
And blessed be she
Who did what she could,
To make a lean man fat,
And a bad man good.”

Sankey’s faith in the power of sacred song was fully rewarded, for he lived to see these songs make their way into the hearts of millions of people.

Among writers who laid the foundation of American Gospel hymnody the following names are familiar: W. B. Bradbury, P. P. Bliss, Philip Phillips, Ira D. Sankey, James McGranahan, W. J. Kirkpatrick, Robert Lowry, George C. Stebbins, H. R. Palmer, D. W. Whittle, T. C. O’Kane, J. R. Sweney, W. H. Doane, Fanny Crosby, E. O. Excell and Charles H. Gabriel. Of this group of sweet singers, whose songs have been carried to the ends of the earth, Mr. Stebbins and Mr. Gabriel alone remain.

Foremost amongst the hymn writers of half a century ago, when this new type of Gospel song came into being, consequent upon a wave of spiritual awakening throughout the United States of America, comes the name of Philip Paul Bliss, author of “Hold the Fort,” “Whosoever will,” “Almost persuaded,” “Man of sorrows,” “Free from the law,” and a host of other

popular songs sung the world over. Of Puritan ancestry, Mr. Bliss was born in the forest and mountain region of Northern Pennsylvania on July 9th, 1838. His parents were poor and he had little help in the battle of life, but he won the victory. From the beginning, a love of song grew with his years, and instinctively his childish ear was caught by any note of nature. Thus we find Philip drawing forth notes from the reeds which grew near his father’s house, and at the age of seven he was making for himself crude instruments in a most original fashion. When a boy of ten summers, he heard a piano for the first time. In later years, at a musical conference which he addressed, Mr. Bliss, speaking of his early days, told a very impressive story. “A barefooted mountain lad had gone, as was his custom, to the little village with his basket of fresh vegetables, which he peddled from door to door. One day, having sold his stock, he was on his way home, when the sound of music was wafted to his ear through the open door of a house by the way; he paused; the music continued, and drew him nearer, and nearer, until, unconsciously, he had entered the room where a lady was playing a piano accompaniment to the song she was singing. Entranced, he stood listening, his very soul lost in a sea of delight; such music he had never before heard. Some movement of his attracted the lady’s attention; she turned, and seeing the boy, with a little scream of surprise cried out: ‘What are you doing in my house? Get out of here with your great bare feet.’” Looking down at his feet as he told the story, Mr. Bliss continued, slowly: “Yes, my feet are large—but God gave them to me; and how I wish that that lady’s children were here that I might sing to them.”

Towards the end of 1857, when but a youth, Mr. Bliss attended a Musical Convention at Rome in Pennsylvania. It was here that he made the acquaintance of Mr. William B. Bradbury, a pioneer of American Gospel hymnody, and the author of many popular pieces of sacred song. The Convention turned the thoughts of Mr. Bliss to the subject of writing hymns, and we find it was about this time that he produced his first composition, which was to be followed by so many powerful sermons in song to be used for the glory of his Master in days to come. In the year 1869 an event occurred which Mr. Bliss regarded as the most important in his life; this was his meeting with Mr. D. L. Moody, who was then holding Gospel services in Chicago. Being possessed with a sweet, sympathetic bass voice of splendid tone and quality, Mr. Bliss’s powerful singing at once attracted the attention of the evangelist. This memorable meeting constituted an epoch, for, from the time Mr. Moody met with Mr. Bliss, dates his impression of the unmistakable power of solo-singing in these evangelistic labours. Why should it be considered strange, he reasoned, that singing by a man of taste and musical ability, should soften the heart, and by God’s blessing, break the hard crust of worldliness that may have gathered over the soul? It was only logical to suppose that if the voice of powerful speaking can arouse the conscience, why may not singing do the same? And thus, the vivid impression of the power of Gospel song which Mr. Moody received when he met Mr. Bliss, forms an epoch in the history of a movement that has been among the most blessed and remarkable during the last half-century, and has, to a great extent, changed the nature of religious meetings in all parts of Christendom. From a letter written by Mr. Bliss about this time, we take the following: “This singing and talking about the Good News of a present, perfect, free salvation, and justification by faith, is so popular and attractive, I do not believe I shall ever find time for anything else. It seems to me it is needed. How much of everything else we hear preached, and how little Gospel! “Soon after this Mr. Bliss made the acquaintance of Major D. W. Whittle, an earnest evangelist, with whom he laboured for some time in the city of Chicago. The major took Mr. Bliss to stay with him at his house, number 43, South Street, and it was here that Mr. Bliss wrote the words and music of the popular hymn:

“I am so glad that our Father in heaven
Tells of His love in the Book He has given;
Wonderful things in the Bible I see;
This is the dearest that Jesus loves me.”

—and of that stirring martial strain, familiar now to tens of thousands, “Hold the fort, for I am coming! “

Mr. Bliss realised more than any one the importance of storing the young mind with Gospel song, and his ability to teach children to sing a new hymn was amazing. From the moment he named a piece he seemed to inspire all with his enthusiasm, and while he led in some bright song, not an eye would wander from him, nor a face be dull. “He would say a few pithy words,” writes one who was present at one of these memorable services, “explaining the sentiment of the song, a few more, possibly about the music and how to render it; sing a strain or two alone, then, after two or three repetitions, the school would march through and ring it out as if they had been familiar with it for months. It was as if he had the gift of infusing music into everybody. No matter how little musical culture or skill teachers and scholars had, no matter how out of key or out of time, they were naturally inclined to sing. Somehow, when Mr. Bliss led, the difficulties and irregularities and discords seemed to disappear, and there was one grand thrill of feeling, one royal burst of harmony.”

Altogether, Mr. P. P. Bliss wrote seven books of Sacred Songs, besides various contributions to musical journals. To him song-writing was a spontaneous outflow of the emotions and melody with which his soul was filled. When he found that God was using his songs to bring out some precious truth of the Gospel of love, or the exaltation of Christ his Lord, his heart would overflow with joy. Often he would come to his wife with the theme of a hymn, with his face shining and his eyes moist with tears, and would ask for prayers that God would bless the song.

Mr. Bliss had indeed a wonderful gift, and not only could he write stirring Gospel songs, but with very little effort he could compose appropriate and attractive music for them, which had much to do with their immediate popularity. As we have already seen, the songs were first introduced to the British public by Mr. Sankey during the great revival services held throughout the United Kingdom in 1873-74. Indeed, the greater number of the Gospel songs and solos sung by Mr. Sankey in this country were the compositions of Mr. Bliss.

Dr. F. W. Root, a celebrated composer and friend of Mr. Bliss, gives a very graphic pen-picture of this notable hymn writer. “He was a poet-musician,” he writes, “and if ever a man seemed fashioned by the Divine hand for special and exalted work, that man was P. P. Bliss. He had a splendid physique, a handsome face, and a dignified, striking presence. It sometimes seemed incongruous, delightfully so, that in one of such great size and masculine appearance there should also appear such gentleness of manner, such perfect amiability, such conspicuous lack of self-assertion, such considerateness and deference to all, and such almost feminine sensitiveness. He had not had opportunities for large intellectual culture, but his natural mental gifts were wonderful. His faculty for seizing upon salient features of whatever came under his notice amounted to an unerring instinct. Mr. Bliss’s voice was always a marvel to me. He used occasionally to come to my room, requesting that I would look into his vocalization with a view to suggestions. At first a few suggestions were made, but latterly I could do nothing but admire. Beginning with E flat, or even D flat below, he would, without apparent effort, produce a series of clarion tones, in an ascending series, until, having reached the D (fourth line tenor clef), I would look to see him weaken and give up, as would most bass singers; but no, on he would go, taking D sharp, E, F, F sharp, and G, without weakness, without throatiness, without sound of straining, and without the usual apoplectic look of effort. I feel quite sure in saying that his chest range was from D flat below to A flat above, the quality being strong and agreeable throughout, and one vowel as good as another. He would have made a name and fortune on the dramatic stage.”

On December 29th, 1876, Philip P. Bliss met his death in a railway disaster. He was travelling toward Chicago, when at Ashtabula, Ohio, a bridge gave way and the whole train was thrown into the stream below. Mr. Bliss might have escaped, but in an endeavour to rescue his wife from the flaming car he lost his life. Had it not been for that eventful wreck, what songs he might have given to the world, for he then was but 38 years of age.