Monday, October 7, 2013

The Testimony of Philip P. Bliss, Hymnwriter and Song Leader

A couple weeks ago, our church choir did a concert that shared the story of the life of Philip P. Bliss, a 19th-century hymnwriter, song leader, and "chorister" [choir director] from Chicago.  Although he died at the young age of 38, he write many hymns and songs, and is best known for "It Is Well With My Soul," written after his four young children perished in a shipwreck.

Our church's choir director found the excerpt below and, at my request, shared it with me.  I lifted it from this website.  You can also find it here (Chapter 4).  It originally comes from a contemporary pastor's recollection of Bliss.

Please notice that Bliss believed church music to be integral to the worship, and that, contrary to ideas widespread today, those who participated needed to be singing for their God's glory, not for their own; not for their own recognition, but for His. 

Few pastors, I am persuaded, are privileged to have in their choristers such gifted, sympathizing, efficient helpers. Too often, it is to be feared, the pulpit and the choir gallery are out of harmony as to the ends proposed, or the methods by which the ends agreed on shall be sought; and the cases are not few, nor hard to find, where in the handling of choir-leaders and those who abet them, the Lord's house is turned into a concert hall, the service of song made largely a device for filling and renting pews, and the minister compelled to sandwich his part in between performances that suggest anything but the worship of God or the salvation of men. Sometimes, indeed, he has to come to his duties in the pulpit after the world and the flesh and the devil have, through the fingers and lips of an unconverted organist and choir-leader, set things moving to their liking, and then turn the service over to them after the sermon, to be finished up as they elect. Doubtless the devil likes that way of conducting Sabbath services. If he can only get people's heads full of waltzes and operas and sonatas and what-not else, before the preaching comes, and then have a chance to follow it up with a march or an aria of his own selection, the preacher's thirty minutes of Gospel will not damage his interests. Little wonder that preaching in such circumstances saves few souls. It is like expecting harvest with the enemy invited to go before the toiler, sowing tares, and to follow him gathering up and snatching away the seed.

To those who knew anything of P.P. Bliss, it will not be needful to say that he had no sympathy with any such idea of the music of the sanctuary. He shared to the fullest extent my feeling, that the disposition to make the song and service of God's house showy and entertaining was an abomination in God's sight. He held, as I did, that all music in connection with worship, whether by instrument or voice, should be consecrated and worshipful. In his conception, he who led at the organ should be one to come to the keys fresh from his closet, one who should pray, as his hands swept over the manuals, that the power of God might, through him, constrain the people's hearts to worship in spirit and in truth. So he believed that all who led in the service of song should sing with grace in their hearts; that the music should be strictly spiritual music - not selections made on grounds of taste, high musical character, but selections aimed at honoring God, exalting Jesus Christ, magnifying His Gospel - music, in a word, that God's Spirit could wholly own and use to comfort, strengthen, and inspire God's people, and lead unsaved souls to Christ. Accordingly, the highest devotional character marked all his selections, all his rehearsals, all his leadership in the Lord's house. It was his invariable custom to open his rehearsals by prayer. He often invited me to lead in that service, and to address the choir on the subject of the singing adapted to worship; and few weeks passed without his impressing the spiritual idea as the all-controlling one, and one never to be forgotten by those who were to lead the praises of the congregation.

As Mr. Bliss stood in the choir gallery, partly facing the singers, during his leadership, there was exactly in front of him, in the eastern window of the transept a large crimson cross. Many times during rehearsals he would point thither, saying, "I am glad we have the cross always before us. Let us forget everything else when we sing. Let us seek to have the people lose sight of us, of our efforts, our skill, and think only of Him who died thereon, and of the peace, comfort. strength, joy He gives them that trust him." It is not strange that, with such a chorister in charge, all solicitude about anthems and voluntaries vanished from the preacher's mind. Whatever the selection, I knew it would be full of worship alike in the sentiment and the rendering, would prepare the way for the Word of God; and when the sermon was ended, no matter what the final thought, whether admonition, encouragement or appeal, I always felt sure that the choirister's heart was one with mine, perfect confidence that the impression sought to be produced would be deepened.

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