Keeping the Hymns Close By

Hallelujah! What a Savior

Author & Composer – Philip P. Bliss, 1838 – 1876
Written in 1876

He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;…He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Isaiah 53:3

Philip P. Bliss was born in Clearfield County in Pennsylvania in 1838. He left home as a young boy to make a living by working on farms and in lumber camps, all while trying to continue his schooling. He was converted at a revival meeting at age twelve. Bliss became an itinerant music teacher in 1860, sometimes traveling on horseback, while continuing his studies at the Normal Academy of Music in Genesco, NY. He worked for four years as a staff composer and editor of gospel song collections.

Philip P. Bliss

His first song was published in 1864. His career direction became clearer in 1868 when he and his wife Lucy became associated with Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody who encouraged both of them to become evangelistic singers as members of Moody’s revival singing team. Bliss and Moody’s famous musician, Ira D. Sankey published a popular series of hymn collections in 1875 and 1876. For the last two years of his life Bliss traveled with Major D. W. Whittle and led the music at revival meetings in the Midwest and Southern United States.

“Hallelujah, What a Savior” is one of the most enduring of the songs produced by Bliss. It is said that the word “hallelujah” is basically the same in all languages. He uses the word to tie the cross with the triumph of the risen and reigning Lord. The first four verses tell the crucifixion story, that Jesus, the “spotless Lamb of God” stood condemned in our place. He took on our sins, the “guilty, vile and helpless.”. Completing each stanza, is the response of praise, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!” The last stanza “When He comes…” is in an entirely different mood, joyful and triumphant in its anticipation of the praise that will continue throughout eternity.

Ira D. Sankey provides the following account of the composition of this hymn:

Written in 1876, shortly before his death, this was the last hymn I heard Mr. Bliss sing. It was at a meeting in the Farwell Hall in Chicago, conducted by the English evangelist, Henry Moorhouse. A few weeks before his death Mr. Bliss visited the State prison at Jackson, Michigan, conducting a service for the 800 inmates. After a very touching address on “The Man of Sorrows,” he sang this hymn with great effect. Many of the prisoners dated their conversion from that day.

Bliss and his wife died in a train crash near Ashtabula, Ohio in December,1876, en route to sing for a revival led by evangelist Daniel Webster Whittle in Chicago at the Moody Tabernacle.

Bliss was a prolific writer of gospel songs throughout his brief lifetime. His songs are strong in emotional appeal with tunes that are easily learned and sung. Other hymns by Bliss include “Jesus Loves Even Me” and “I Gave My Life for Thee.” He also composed the tune for “It Is Well With My Soul.” (Hymn of the Month January 2016)

Taken from Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions
Copyright © 1990, 2002 by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission. All rights reserved
Used by permission from “History of Hymns” by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Director of the Sacred Music Program and Distinguished Professor, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.