Philip Paul Bliss was an American hymn writer born in Pennsylvania in 1838 to Isaac Bliss and Lydia Dolittle. He had three sisters Phoebe, Elizabeth, and Reliance and one brother, James. Married to Lucy Young in June 1859, he had two children. He died, in a train wreck with his wife, in December of 1876 in Ashtabula, Ohio, at the age of 38. Most sources mention that Bliss actually escaped from the flames at first, but was then killed when he went back into the train to try to rescue his wife. Neither body was ever found. An even scarier detail about the trainwreck that took his life is that Bliss’ trunk was salvaged from the wreckage, and in it, evangelist D. W. Whittle found an unfinished hymn, which began, "I know not what awaits me, God kindly veils my eyes...."

Another story that goes along with Bliss' untimely death is one dealing with one of his hymns. Horatio Spafford, a Presbyterian layman and successful businessman, planned a European trip for his family in 1873. In November of that year, due to unexpected last minute business developments, he had to remain in Chicago; but he sent his wife and four daughters on ahead as scheduled. He expected to follow in a few days. On November 22, the ship was struck by an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband and told him that out of the family, she was "Saved Alone." Shortly afterward Spafford left by ship to join his bereaved wife.

It is said that on the sea near the area where it was thought his four daughters had drowned, Spafford penned this text with words so significantly describing his own personal grief, "When sorrows like sea billows roll...." It is noteworthy, however, that Spafford does not dwell on the theme of life’s sorrows and trials. In the words of David Holsinger, of whom told me this story, "Humanly speaking, it is amazing that one could experience such personal tragedy and sorrow as did Horatio Spafford and still be able to say with such convincing clarity, 'It is well with my soul...'."

Bliss was so impressed with the experience and expression of Spafford’s text that he shortly wrote the music for it, first published in 1876. Bliss was a prolific writer of gospel songs throughout his brief lifetime and in most cases, he wrote both the words and the music. This hymn is one of the very few exceptions.

Story as told by David Holsinger

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