Posted by: rcottrill | October 5, 2010

Today in 1864 – Hold the Fort inspired

Hymn writer Philip Paul Bliss has given us a couple of songs based on contemporary incidents. Hold the Fort relates to something that happened during the American Civil War.

Graphic Civil WarA company of Union soldiers was commanded to defend an important supply depot at Altoona Pass. (A million and a half rations were stored there.) Soon surrounded by a much stronger force of Confederate troops, it looked as though the cause was hopeless. But suddenly, an officer caught sight of a white signal flag been flown from Kenesaw Mountain, 20 miles away. Soon, a message was conveyed across the miles: “Hold the fort; I am coming.” (William Tecumseh Sherman). A cheer went up from the men, and they redoubled their efforts and were able to hold on until Sherman arrived with reinforcements and drove the enemy back. (If you’d like to see a picture of the man who sent the signal, and a picture of his actual signal flag, check here.)

Bliss took this as an illustration of our spiritual conflict, and of the need to remain faithful to our charge, and continue on until Christ comes again.

Ho, my comrades! see the signal waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.

“Hold the fort, for I am coming,” Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to heaven, “By Thy grace we will.”

There is also a fascinating story behind Philip Bliss’s song, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning. A harbour on Lake Erie, at Cleveland, was set up with a series of lights to guide ships in safely. Above the harbour was a lighthouse. Then, along the channel that led to an inner basin that was the Cleveland harbour there were a series of lamps lit.

But one day, the man responsible for lighting the lower lights carelessly neglected his duty. He reasoned that the lighthouse was good enough, and no one had ever yet failed to make the harbour. So he decided not to bother igniting the channel lights.

That night a terrible storm blew up, with waves rolling in like mountains, and the moon and stars obscured by black clouds. Nearing the harbour was a ship, and on deck this conversation took place between the captain and the pilot, amid the roar of the storm:

“Are you sure this is Cleveland?” asked the captain.
“Quite sure, sir,” replied the pilot.
“Where are the lower lights?”
“Gone out, sir.”
“Can you make the harbor?”
“We must, or perish, sir!”

But they did not make it. And the ship went down with great loss of life. Bliss applied this story to the need for Christians to share their faith. From heaven shines the great light of the gospel, through the Word. But we bear the lesser lights along the shore, commissioned to guide sinners into the safe harbour of God’s salvation.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy from His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
For to us He gives the keeping

Of the lights along the shore.

(2) Today in 1930 – God of Grace and God of Glory written
Graphic Riverside ChurchModernist pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote this hymn for the opening service of Riverside Church, in New York City (pictured to the left). On one occasion, when our family was visiting friends in the city, my father and his friend attended a concert given by renowned organist Virgil Fox at the large and magnificent edifice

In his day, Fosdick stoutly denied the inspiration of Scripture, seeing the Bible rather as a record of the evolution of religious thought. In a famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” he opposed those who held to the fundamental doctrines of the apostolic faith. While many of us would disagree with Fosdick’s theology, and with that of Riverside Church over the years, the hymn in question has some merit–and a certain irony in its defense of Christ, given the views of the author!

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,


  1. Did you know that “Hold The Fort” and “Dare To Be A Daniel” where actually banned by the Sultan from use in Turkey? (Sankey, Pg. 134).

    Also, regarding “Hold The Fort” – Although Philip Bliss did not consider this to be one of his better hymns, his monument at Rome, Pennsylvania bears this inscription: “P. P. Bliss, author of ‘Hold The Fort’”

    Dare to be a Daniel:

    Hold the Fort:

    • Yes, I was aware of Bliss’s monument, but it’s too bad Ira Sankey didn’t explain further about the ban in Turkey. I would think all Christian hymns would be restricted in some countries for religious reasons, so it seems unusual that he singles out those two.

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