Let the Lower Lights Be Burning
DESCRIPTION: "Brightly beams our Father's mercy, from his lighthouse evermore." "Let the lower lights be burning, Send a beam across the wave, Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, You may rescue, you may save." In a dark night of sin, many are seeking light
AUTHOR: Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876)
EARLIEST DATE: 1871 (first published, according to Dright Boyer, Ships and Men of the Great Lakes); Julian, however, lists the first publication by Bliss as being in _Gospel Songs_ of 1874
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad sailor
REFERENCES (3 citations):
Walton/Grimm/Murdock, pp. 214-216, "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: Frederick Pease Harlow, _The Making of a Sailor, or Sea Life Aboard a Yankee Square-Rigger_, 1928; republished by Dover, 1988, p. 294, "(no title)" (1 text)
NOTES [666 words]: Many P. P. Bliss hymns have some sort of story associated with them (see, for instance, "Hold the Fort," inspired by a message General Sherman sent to a subordinate). Boyer devotes a whole chapter to Bliss and this song., and tells the story on pp. 41-42 (also found in Walton/Grimm/Murdock). Apparently, in this case, a ship was trying to make Cleveland harbor. But the crew could not see the lights of the town (the "lower lights") in the storm, and failed to navigate into the harbor, and the boat was lost.
Bliss made an analogy: God manages the "great lighthouse," but people are the "lower lights" which help with parts of the navigation, and hence should present the best light they can.
According to Boyer, p. 41n., no such boat wreck can be identified, but of course it doesn't really matter for purposes of the song.
Walton/Grimm/Murdock claims that several Great Lakes sailors recalled this song, but cites no names; it appears the version in the book is from print. So I have not listed the Great Lakes in the "Found In" field; I am not convinced this song is genuinely traditional.
Nonetheless Walton/Grimm/Murdock did not invent the Great Lakes association, since Boyer also describes it.
Boyer on p. 40 says of Bliss "was best-known for his golden-voiced renditions of hymns he himself had composed. So beautiful and emotional was his delivery that tears would often stream from his eyes, and his audiences frequently reacted likewise.
According to Johnson, p. 146, Bliss (born July 9, 1838) sold his first song to Root and Cady in 1864. He even worked for that time for Root and Cady before becoming choir director of Chicago's First Congregational Church. He went on to work with Dwight L. Moody.
Julian, p. 151, reports, "Mr. Bliss is usually known as 'P. P. Bliss.' This is found on the title-pages of his collections. On his own authority, however, we are enabled to say that his name originally stood thus: 'Philipp Bliss.' Early in life he separated the final p from his Christian name, constituted it a capital P, and thus produced 'P. P. Bliss.'"
Julian, p. 150, says, "Originally a Methodist, [Bliss] became, about 1871, a choirman of the First Congregational Church, Chicago, and the Superintendant of its Sunday Schools. In 1874 he joined D. W. Whittle in evangelical work. To this cause he gave (although a poor man) the royalty of his Gospel Songs, which was worth some thirty thousand dollars."
Reynolds, p. 267, omits mention of his Methodism, and says that he converted at about age 12 and joined the Baptist church of Elk Run, Pennsylvania, adding that he published his first song with Root and Cady in 1864. He had married his wife, Lucy J. Young, in 1859.
It was in 1874 that Bliss published his collection Gospel Songs -- apparently the first substantiated use of the term "Gospel Songs", although a book Gospel Melodies was published in 1821 (Davidson, p. 139). He had earlier published The Charm (1871), The Joy (1872), and Sunshine for Sunday School (1873) (Davidson, p. 138).
Bliss died in 1876 in a train wreck. He and his family were making a trip through Ohio on December 29 when the train went off the track near a bridge in a snowstorm (Boyer, pp. 43-46). As the train cars fell, they caught fire. Boyer says that 92 passengers were killed and 64 injured. Bliss and his wife were among them. A legend I saw somewhere says that he was killed while going back into the inferno to rescue other passengers. (Johnson, p. 145, says he was trying to rescue his wife; so also Reynolds, p. 268).
Daniel Webster Whittle, who also wrote "Neither Do I Condemn Thee," posthumously published the memoirs of Bliss; that book seems to be the major source of information about him.
Among songs in this Index, Bliss is responsible for "Hold the Fort," "Pull for the Shore," "Jesus Loves Me," and "Little Birdie in the Tree" (from The Charm), although it doesn't sound much like his style to me; he also supplied the tune for "It Is Well With My Soul." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.1
- Boyer: Dwight Boyer, Ships and Men of the Great Lakes, Freshwater Press, 1977
- Davidson: James Robert Davidson, A Dictionary of Protestant Church Music, Scarecrow Press, 1975
- Johnson: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns, Hallberg, 1982
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
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