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The Untold Story Behind the Hymn ‘Man of Sorrows’

A local ministry recently gifted me a book—Man of Sorrows, King of Glory: What the Humiliation and Exaltation of Jesus Mean for Us by Jonty Rhodes. Because I was unfamiliar with the book and its author, I initially read the table of contents and the acknowledgments. From the beginning, it was evident all the chapter headings came from the hymn “Man of Sorrows! What a Name” by Philip P. Bliss. That intrigued me.

Then the final paragraph of the acknowledgments astonished me. Rhodes writes,

One final note. The chapter headings come from Philip Bliss’s hymn popularly known as “Man of Sorrows.” Bliss spent his early years working as a music teacher but became an itinerant evangelist in his mid-thirties on the advice of D. L. Moody. He wrote “Man of Sorrows” in 1875, shortly after this career change. But Bliss would never see his fortieth birthday. On December 29, 1876, a trestle bridge collapsed as the train carrying him and his wife passed over it. Most of the carriages disappeared into the snow-covered Ashtabula River valley below. Bliss himself survived the fall but was last seen heading back into the wreckage to rescue his wife from the flames. Neither body was ever found. I know little else about him.

I’d never heard Bliss’s story before. Not only did I grow up singing his hymns, but this tragic accident took place about an hour away from where I live and pastor. Although the author knew little else about him, I wanted to know more.

Name on the Top Right

When you open a hymnbook, the name on the top left of a page typically indicates who wrote the words to the song. The name on the top right indicates who wrote the tune. Sometimes one person is responsible for both, but generally the song is the result of multiple artists.

As I read more about Bliss’s work, I learned he wrote the tune to one of the most beloved hymns of the English language—“It Is Well with My Soul.” Horatio Spafford wrote the words, so his name appears on the top left of the published hymn. And on several occasions, I’ve heard the song introduced in congregational worship by recounting Spafford’s story. First, the Great Chicago Fire. Shortly after, the tragic loss of his four daughters in a shipwreck. Then his journey across the same waters, which inspired him to pen the words “when sorrows like sea billows roll.” It’s a powerful story of resilient faith in a sovereign God.

Bliss, whose name appears on the top right, composed the song masterfully. It’s hard to imagine it with another tune. In 1876, he published it with Ira Sankey in Gospel Hymns No. 2. At the end of that year, the Lord would “haste the day” in an unexpected way and Bliss’s faith would be made sight. Yet, composed and published, his tune would help Spafford’s song find a home in countless hearts and minds.

Name on the Top Left

Although Bliss and his wife, Lucy, were never recovered, his trunk somehow survived the crash and ensuing fire. A manuscript found in the trunk contained the words to “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” In Bliss’s honor, James McGranahan composed the tune, and the song was later published. It’s one of the only songs where Bliss’s name appears only on the top left.

It’s hard to discern the “triumphant power” of the Redeemer in the Ashtabula Train Disaster, as it came to be known. Can we sing about the “victory he giveth over sin and death and hell” when such tragedies continue to happen? In Chicago, where Bliss was headed, his friend Moody was visibly shaken. A report from the Chicago Tribune described a spirit of sadness that prevailed throughout the day as Moody and others spoke to the congregation gathered at the church.

Can we sing about the ‘victory he giveth over sin and death and hell’ when such tragedies continue to happen?

The loss was profound. It was unexpected. Bliss was young, and his work and gifts were beginning to have a broad reach. He was becoming so commercially successful that he began taking money from royalties and giving them in support of charity and evangelism. Moody even felt compelled to defend Bliss’s reputation because his popularity resulted in jealousy and envy in some.

Christ’s victory over sin and death and hell, however, still belonged to Bliss. The victory doesn’t take away the reality or inevitability of our death, but it secures for us eternal life beyond death. Although Bliss never made it to Chicago on that December trip, he never missed a moment of worshiping the Redeemer who sealed his pardon, paid his debt, and made him free.

Man of Sorrows, What a Name

“Man of Sorrows” was the last hymn Ira Sankey ever heard Bliss sing. Bliss’s name is on the top left and right of this hymn. The words and the tune came from him. The focus, however, is entirely on Jesus.

Man of Sorrows! What a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

Guilty, vile and helpless, we:
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
Full atonement! Can it be?
Hallelujah, What a Savior!

Lifted up was he to die
“It is finished!” Was his cry:
Now in heaven exalted high:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

When he comes, our glorious King,
All his ransomed home to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah! What a Savior!

There’s much to reflect on in Bliss’s story. He was gifted with natural talent and blessed by the kindness and support of others. He knew poverty and he knew riches. His work has endured far beyond his life, even though his life ended so young. God used him to come alongside others like Spafford and help their work flourish. God also used others to take up Bliss’s unfinished work and complete it so the world could be blessed through it.

Whether our name appears on the top right or top left, or both, or neither, may God grant us the same resolve to point others to the One whose name is above every name.

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