A Hymn History Holiday

by Joe Henderson

This article first appeared in FrontLine • May/June 1999. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Do you like hymn history? Our family does, and we especially enjoy visiting various places relating to hymn composers and their works. We recently took a trip that enabled us not only to find several hymn history sites but also to see some of our country’s back-country beauty. Ride along as we visit them now.

Begin your trip with us in Philadelphia. In addition to seeing the well-known landmarks of our country’s history, let’s go down to the Tindley Temple United Methodist Church on South Broad Street. Here Charles Albert Tindley (1851-1933) pastored. We remember him best for his hymns “Nothing Between,” “Stand By Me,” “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” and “Leave It There.” Mark Sidwell’s Free Indeed (Bob Jones University Press) gives an excellent review of Tindley’s life. Charles Tindley, Prince of Preachers (Abingdon Press, 1982) by Ralph H. Jones, gives further information on the life of this master preacher and orator, the son of a former slave.

Next we head north and west to the lovely little village of Rome, Pennsylvania. It’s not on some maps, but Rome is rich in hymn history. Located on the main road through town is the P. P. Bliss Gospel Songwriters Museum. Take your time here seeing the memorabilia that the dedicated museum trustees have collected on P. P. Bliss (1838–76), James McGranahan (1840–1907), and D. B. Towner (1850–1919). A quick check of your hymnbook will yield many treasured hymns from these three men from “the gospel hymn era.” We suggest you write or call the museum before visiting (Route 1, Box 293, Rome, PA 18837; phone 717–247–7683), as they are not open every day. Also, if you’re interested in additional information about the lives of The Music Men of Rome, you may want to read Dr. Al Smith’s book by that title (Al Smith Ministries, 2200 Wade Hampton Blvd., Greenville, SC 29615).

Before you leave Rome, go east to the town cemetery and see the historical marker that tells of Philip Bliss. Also examine the cenotaph in the middle of the cemetery. It was erected by the public to the memory of Bliss and his wife in response to Evangelist D. L. Moody’s call. Hundreds of Sunday school children across our country collected their pennies for its placement. Your heart will be touched as you see the marker’s inscription from Psalm 119:54: “Thy statutes have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage.” Moody spoke and Ira Sankey sang at the cenotaph’s dedication.

But Philip and Lucy Bliss are not buried in Rome. To go to the place of their burial, we must travel westward to Ashtabula, Ohio, where the Ashtabula railroad bridge disaster took their lives on December 29, 1876. Philip and Lucy had left Rome to join up with D. L. Moody in Chicago for evangelistic meetings. Near the passenger depot in the center of Ashtabula, as the train was crossing the Ashtabula River, the bridge gave way and the Blisses and 78 other people lost their lives.

The Ashtabula railroad bridge disaster shocked the nation. Congress subsequently passed legislation that gave the Interstate Commerce Commission authority to regulate and inspect railroad bridge design.

Today, the ravine over the Ashtabula River has been filled in, but the depot still stands, closed and boarded up. Although no bridge exists over the accident site today, a very long, narrow railroad trestle stands over the river downstream. It gives an idea of just how steep and deep the ravine at the accident site must have been.

Before leaving Ashtabula, go to the Chestnut Hill Cemetery and find the long ridge in its middle and the tall granite obelisk marking the “Unrecognized Dead of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster.” The bodies of Philip and Lucy Bliss are interred there.

Our next hymn history site is just south of Ashtabula at Kinsman, Ohio, where James McGranahan retired. After P. P. Bliss’s death, McGranahan left his postmaster’s job in Rome, Pennsylvania, and teamed up with Major D. W. Whittle. Along with D. L. Moody, they continued revival meetings in America and abroad.

At Kinsman you’ll want to stop by McGranahan’s beautiful home—now the Baumgardner Funeral Home (Box 285, Kinsman, OH 44428; phone 330-876-2271). Hugh and Ardeen Baumgardner graciously showed us around the home, which was known as Maplehurst when McGranahan purchased it. It includes beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows in the stairwell and a portrait of McGranahan over the fireplace. And McGranahan’s grave is located in the Kinsman town cemetery.

Next we drive southeast, back into Pennsylvania, to the town of New Castle. Here we’ll find much on the life of Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908). D. L. Moody preached the gospel, and his partner Ira Sankey sang the gospel to thousands in the U.S. and Great Britain in the latter part of the 1800s. Sankey’s musical setting of Elizabeth Clephane’s poem “The Ninety and Nine” became his trademark solo. A few of the many familiar Sankey hymns are “For You I Am Praying,” “Hiding in Thee,” “Trusting Jesus, That Is All,” and “Who Is on the Lord’s Side.”

Begin your Sankey tour by visiting the Lawrence County Historical Society (408 East Jefferson Street, New Castle, PA 16101; phone 412-658-4022). The Society has a room completely dedicated to Ira Sankey; it includes one of his portable reed music organs used in the Moody-Sankey meetings. After visiting the Society, go to the downtown public library and ask to see the box of letters, photos, and news clippings on Ira Sankey, which can be found in the “special reserves” section.

Several miles west of New Castle is the tiny town of Edinburg. Here, next to the post office, you’ll find the historical marker commemorating Sankey’s birthplace.

We’ve seen a lot on this hymn history trip! However, there is one more “site for our souls” that we’ll want to visit before heading home again. On the banks of the Ohio River southwest of New Castle is East Liverpool, Ohio. Here lived Will Thompson (1847–1909), who wrote “Jesus Is All the World to Me” and “Lead Me Gently Home, Dear Father.” We know him best, though, as the composer of the great invitation hymn “Softly and Tenderly.”

D. L. Moody encouraged Thompson, a successful music publisher, to write “songs that would bring people to Christ.” In Treasury of Hymn Histories, Dr. Al Smith relates how Thompson traveled all the way from East Liverpool to Northfield, Massachusetts, to see Moody just before Moody went home to God. During their conversation, Moody told Thompson that if he, Moody, could live his life over, he wished he could have written “Softly and Tenderly.”

Will Thompson was known as “the bard of Ohio” for his secular and sacred music publishing. He gave 100 acres to the city, today known as Thompson Park. His home has been restored and is located right on the bank of the Ohio River. He’s buried in the Riverview Cemetery near town.

Upon entering the renovated public library in downtown East Liverpool, look at the brass plaque memorializing Thompson. Once inside, you may get access to the Historical Society’s 30-plus pages on Thompson and various news articles about him. The library also has a bound copy of Thompson’s secular and sacred music.

We’re at the end of our hymn history holiday. Our hearts have been filled with joy, our souls strengthened and refreshed, and our lips have given forth praise to God for the “heritage of those who [have feared his] name” (Ps. 61:5), who have led us in singing “the ways of the Lord” (Ps. 138:5).

At the time of original publication, Captain Joe Henderson was an international pilot flying Boeing 767s for U. S. Airways.