Posted by: rcottrill | December 29, 2010

Today in 1849 – It Came Upon the Midnight Clear published

Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote this popular Christmas carol at the request of a pastor friend. It was published in Boston’s Christian Register. Fifteen years earlier, Sears had written another carol (that I believe is superior), Calm on the Listening Ear of Night. But here is a sample stanza of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold;
“Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven’s all gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

(2) Today in 1876 – Philip Bliss Died
Philip Paul Bliss was one of the nineteenth century’s greatest gospel song writers, with dozens of songs to his credit. Many are still found in our hymnals. (See Today in 1838 for a list.) One that is less often used is a powerful hymn of commitment the author called simply My Prayer. It is one of those songs that would provide a wealth of material for Bible study and meditation. Here it is, in its entirety.

More holiness give me, more strivings within.
More patience in suffering, more sorrow for sin.
More faith in my Saviour, more sense of His care.
More joy in His service, more purpose in prayer.

More gratitude give me, more trust in the Lord.
More zeal for His glory, more hope in His Word.
More tears for His sorrows, more pain at His grief.
More meekness in trial, more praise for relief.

More purity give me, more strength to o’ercome,
More freedom from earth-stains, more longings for home.
More fit for the kingdom, more useful I’d be,
More blessèd and holy, more, Saviour, like Thee.

Graphic Train WreckOn the above date, Philip Bliss and his wife were on their way back to Chicago by train. They had spent Christmas visiting some relatives in Pennsylvania, and Bliss was looking forward to getting back to assist D. L. Moody with a great evangelistic campaign, early in the new year. But it was not to be.

As the train approached Ashtabula, Ohio, it had to cross a bridge spanning a ravine 80 to 100 feet deep. Suddenly, the bridge gave way, plunging the train into the gorge. The wooden railway cars quickly caught fire. Philip Bliss was able to crawl free of the wreckage, but when he realized his wife was still inside, he went back into the car in an attempt to free her. Both of them perished, along with about a hundred others. In a strange irony, Bliss had addressed an audience the night before the accident and said to them, “I may never pass this way again.” Then he sang a solo entitled, I’m Going Home Tomorrow.

Some time later, the Blisses’ trunk was discovered. Inside was what may have been Bliss’s last written song, My Redeemer, awaiting a tune. It was, in effect, a last testimony of this godly man. His close friend James McGranahan supplied the melody and it was sung shortly after in the great Moody Tabernacle, with Major Daniel Whittle, another hymn writer, sharing the story behind it.

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.

Sing, oh sing, of my Redeemer,
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt, and made me free.

I will praise my dear Redeemer,
His triumphant power I’ll tell,
How the victory He giveth
Over sin, and death, and hell.

I suppose it has to do in part with one’s hymn-singing tradition, but in my experience this beautiful song is sometimes sung too quickly. The fact that “On the cruel cross He suffered” ought to cause us to reflect reverently on what Calvary means to us–as should the truth of the sinner’s “lost estate,” and his condemnation under “the curse.” The results of Christ shedding His blood on the cross are wonderful, but the fact of it, the event itself should be approached with holy awe.

If we’re not careful, a quicker pace can tend to trivialize sobering truths. (For instance, listen to this.) The group in the example below does better–though actually, I might take the song a bit slower still.  And apart from the tempo, there is a sense of tenderness and worship in the very singing style of the latter that breathes a deeper understanding of the text.

(3) Today in 1881 – The Lily of the Valley published
Charles William Fry was the Salvation Army’s first band leader. He has left us this one gospel song that is still in common use, The Lily of the Valley. It was first published in the Salvation Army’s periodical, War Cry. (For more about Mr. Fry and his song, see the second item under Today in 1819.)

I have found a friend in Jesus, He’s everything to me,
He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul;
The Lily of the Valley, in Him alone I see
All I need to cleanse and make me fully whole.
In sorrow He’s my comfort, in trouble He’s my stay;
He tells me every care on Him to roll.

He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.


Responses

  1. 1. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”: I’m fascinated that a song could become a popular Christmas carol even though it never mentions the birth of Christ at all.
    2. P. P. Bliss: What a gift to the Church he was, writing hundreds of hymns, words *and* music to most. The one quoted here is excellent. With “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” I have often thought that he may have been formulating the music in his mind on that train trip — maybe even writing down some of it – but that music perished in the flames with him. And how bittersweet it must have been for Mr. McGranahan to write the music to his friend’s words – and then later for the assembled group in Chicago to sing the completed hymn.
    3. “Lily of the Valley”: As is the case with so many hymns, this hymn is replete with direct and indirect references to Scripture, and its writer, Charles W. Fry, obviously knew his Bible and his Lord very well. Mr. Fry refers specifically to II Kings 6:17, Rev. 22:16, and Song of Solomon 2:1 and 5:10, and indirectly to Exodus 16:4.

    • Thanks for the excellent comments. As to “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” you are right: No direct reference to Christ, or Mary, or Bethlehem, etc. It focuses entirely on the element of promised peace in the message of the angels. Sears was a Unitarian, and that group does not believe in the deity of Christ. However, Edmund Sears apparently had a more orthodox Christology than his fellows. He just doesn’t show it here! “Calm on the Listening Ear of Night” is better in that regard, with…

      Light on thy hills, Jerusalem!
      The Saviour now is born,
      And bright on Bethlehem’s joyous plains
      Breaks the first Christmas morn.

      I might use the first carol occasionally in a carol service, in combination with some that have more explicit teaching (such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”). But to speak of peace and fail to mention the Prince of Peace doesn’t make much sense!

  2. […] his tragic death in a train accident at the age of 38, Philip Bliss wrote music for the songs of others, and added […]

  3. Good stuff Robert. When you get a chance, please read my response to your comment. It will help guide people to your blog. BTW, really nice blog. Happy new year!!

  4. […] Wordwise Hymns (and see here) The Cyber […]

  5. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  6. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  7. Thank you for your careful research. Bliss wrote songs that spoke to the heart in a deep way. Today ita seems as if the words to worship songs have not the depth of his. This was a fine tribute to Bliss.

    • Thanks for your kind words–and I agree. Though it’s true that there are some trite and shallow old songs, and some strong and inspiring newer songs, it’s generally the case that our traditional hymns and gospel songs speak with far more doctrinal clarity and devotional richness than contemporary songs do.

  8. […] and productive one for eleven years. But it began at a scene of terrible tragedy. When hymn writer Philip Bliss and his wife were killed in a train accident in 1876, Mr. McGranahan hurried to the scene. There he […]

  9. […] Wordwise Hymns (Philip Bliss died) The Cyber […]

  10. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  11. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]


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