Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Philip Bliss, who wrote both the text and tune for this hymn, and his 19th century contemporary, Ira Sankey, are credited with founding the gospel song movement.  Both were part of the Dwight L. Moody evangelistic team, and both sang, led crusade singing, and authored many gospel songs.  Bliss was inspired to write this hymn after hearing the following illustration in one of Moody’s sermons: The pilot of a ship aught in a violent storm searched frantically for the lights that would guide him to safety.  He could see the powerful beam of the lighthouse, but the lower lights along the rocky shore were out, and both the ship and crew were last. “Brethren,” Moody concluded, “the Master will take care of the lighthouse, but we must keep the lower lights burning.”

The link below will open a new window and features the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with an especially  lovely setting of this song.

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

The Light of the World Is Jesus

Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876) was one of the five children born to John and Lydia Bliss.  Their log home, typical of the early settlers of northern Pennsylvania, was filled with love and Christian teaching, but formal education was scarce.  Early in life, Philip developed a passion for learning and for music, and took advantage of whatever opportunities came his way.  He became a teacher at age 18 and about that same time began his first formal music studies.  His musical gifts, including a strong baritone voice, developed quickly and by 1860 he was teaching music.

In 1864,  Root & Cady, of Chicago, Illinois, published a song by Bliss. The payment he requested and received for the song was a flute.  Bliss soon became friends with George F. Root, composer of many Civil War songs, including “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and several hymns.   During the next years, Bliss worked for the publisher and with Root, leading singing conventions, teaching and giving concerts.

In 1869, a meeting took place which would change gospel music forever.  Bliss described it as follows: “One Sunday evening, my wife and I went out for a walk, before going to church… we came upon the open air meeting. I was at once attracted by the earnestness of the speaker, who, I was told, was [Dwight L.] Moody, and, waiting until he closed with an earnest appeal for all to follow him to the theater, we decided we would go, and fell in with the crowd, and spent the evening in his meeting there. That night Mr. Moody was without his usual leader for the singing, and the music was rather weak. From the audience, I helped what I could on the hymns, and attracted Moody’s attention. At the close of the meeting, he was at the door shaking hands with all who passed out, and as I came to him he had my name and history in about two minutes, and a promise that when I was in Chicago, Sunday evenings, I would come and help in the singing at the theater meetings. This was the commencement of our acquaintance.”

In July, 1870, Mr. Bliss became leader of the choir of the First Congregational Church of Chicago, and shortly afterwards, the Superintendent of the Sabbath school. He continued to hold both of these positions for about three years, resigning only when his work as a singing evangelist took more of his attention.  In November of 1876, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss went to Peoria, Illinois, for a series of meetings and services with long-time friends and colleagues.  By mid-December, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss returned home to New England to spend Christmas with their sons, Philip playing the part of Santa Claus.  Plans were to return to Chicago for services with Moody, then on to England.  Bliss never made it back to Chicago.  On December 29, 1876, with the children safely at home, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss were in a train accident that took their earthly lives.

Bliss wrote many of the songs that Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey used during the great 1870s revival in England.  “The Light of the World is Jesus” w as written for such a revival meeting and was first sung by Sankey.  Bliss biographer Major D. W. Whittle said, “It came to him together, words and music, one morning while passing through the hall to his room, and was at once written out.”  The text is based on John 8:12.

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  John 8:12 KJV

The Light of the World Is Jesus

The whole world was lost
In the darkness of sin,
The Light of the world is Jesus!
Like sunshine at noonday,
His glory shone in.
The Light of the world is Jesus!

Come to the light, ’tis shining for thee;
Sweetly the light has dawned upon me.
Once I was blind, but now I can see:
The Light of the world is Jesus!

No darkness have we
Who in Jesus abide;
The Light of the world is Jesus!
We walk in the light
When we follow our Guide!
The Light of the world is Jesus!


Ye dwellers in darkness
With sin blinded eyes,
The Light of the world is Jesus!
Go, wash, at His bidding,
And light will arise.
The Light of the world is Jesus!


No need of the sunlight
In Heaven we’re told;
The Light of the world is Jesus!
The Lamb is the Light
In the city of gold,
The Light of the world is Jesus!


It Is Well With My Soul

Their story began quite happily.  Anna Larson was young, lovely and intelligent.  Horatio Spafford was a businessman and senior partner in a successful law firm.  They married in 1861 when Anna was 19 and Horatio was 33, and had a beautiful home in Chicago.  They were devout and active Christians, Ira Sankey and Dwight Moody among their friends.  Horatio was active in the abolitionist crusade and their home was a frequent gathering place for many of the reform movements of the day.  Life was good.

The Spafford’s circumstances then began to change.  Scarlet Fever took the life of their 4-year-old son in 1870.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 took almost every real estate investment they owned.  After the fire, they put their faith into action, devoting many hours to the survivors.

In 1873, Spafford arranged for his family to go on vacation to rest and have time to recover from the tragedies.  Since their friend Dwight Moody would be preaching in England, they decided to join him there.  Last minute business delayed Horatio’s travel, but Anna and their four daughters,  Tanetta (11), Elizabeth “Bessie” (9), Margaret Lee (5), and Anna “Annie” (2) set sail aboard the S.S. Ville du Havre.

Nine days later, Spafford received news that the S.S. Ville du Havre  was in a collision at sea.  The ocean liner sank in just 12 minutes, and 273 perished.   Anna, found unconscious and clinging to a piece of wreckage, was among the 47 survivors.  All four daughters drowned.  Anna sent a cable to Horatio saying, “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”

As quickly as could be arranged, Horatio left for Europe to join Anna.  As he passed by the spot believed to be the final resting place of the Ville du Havre, he wrote, “It is well; the will of God be done.”  He wrote “It Is Well with My Soul” based on those words.  Spafford did not dwell on the tragedy.  He fully realized the comfort that only God can give, the peace that truly passes all understanding.  Horatio and Anna later had three more children, and moved to Jerusalem for mission work.

It Is Well

Horatio Spafford manuscript of “It Is Well with My Soul”

Composer Philip Bliss was moved by Spafford’s witness and powerful words.  He wrote a lovely melody specifically to go with the lyrics, and the song was first published by Bliss and Sankey in 1876.  Bliss named his tune VILLE DU HARVE, the name of the sunken ship.  Philip Bliss wrote many hymns and tunes, including “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Almost Persuaded,” and “(I Will Sing of) My Redeemer.”

Philip Bliss and his wife died in 1876, shortly after he composed the melody.  A bridge collapse caused a train wreck.  Bliss survived the accident but went into the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife.

These stories are tragic yet true.  Our lives are made up of joys and tragedies, too.  My prayer is for each of you to know the peace and hope Horatio Spafford knew.