Behind the Hymn: Hold the Fort
Ira Sankey wrote “Mr. Bliss said to me once, not long before his death, that he hoped that he would not be known to posterity only as the author of Hold the Fort, for he believed that he had written many better songs. However, when I attended the dedication of the Bliss monument, at Rome, Pennsylvania, I found these words inscribed:
P. P. Bliss
Author of Hold the Fort”
Philip Paul Bliss was an American composer, conductor and writer of hymns. He is best known for writing the music to such popular hymns as It Is Well with My Soul, Almost Persuaded, Hallelujah, What a Savior, Wonderful Words of Life and Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.
Bliss heard the story of Sherman’s march through the south to Atlanta when General Hood gained control of the rear, cutting off supplies and blocking the routes. Many soldiers had fallen and the continuation of the battle seemed lost and fatal. A Union officer caught sight of a white signal flag on top of Kennesaw Mountain. The signal was answered and spread saying “HOLD THE FORT; I’M COMING. W. T. SHERMAN.” Sherman’s men arrived three hours later forcing Hood’s Confederate forces to retreat.
When Bliss heard this story, he was inspired and wrote the hymn Hold the Fort. We don’t know exactly when or how Bliss heard the story, but it was probably during his service in the Union Army at the end of the Civil War.
Philip Bliss died in a train accident on December 29, 1876. He escaped the accident, but returned to free his wife and they both perished in the fire.
As with so many great hymns of the 19th Century, Dwight D. Moody and Ira Sankey used the hymn in their crusade services.
Sankey wrote: "On a trip to Switzerland, in 1879, I stopped over Sunday in London with the family of William Higgs, and attended morning services at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. While seated in a pew with Mrs. Higgs and three of her daughters, I was discovered by Mr. [Charles] Spurgeon. At the conclusion of his address he sent one of his deacons down to the pew, inviting me to his private room at the rear of the pulpit. There I was warmly greeted by the great preacher. In the course of our conversation he said: “A few days ago I received a copy of a bill pending in Parliament in relation to the army, with a letter from a Christian gentleman asking if I couldn’t preach a sermon on this bill. I have decided to preach that sermon to-night, and I want you to come and sing, ‘Hold the Fort.’ I replied that he was not a man to be denied; and although I had not expected to sing in public in London on this trip, I would gladly comply with his wish if I could have a small organ to accompany myself upon. This I supposed he would not be have, as he did not approve of organs at public worship and never used one in his church; but he replied that when I arrived at the meeting there would be an instrument on the platform for me. In the evening, at the close of his address he announced that I was present and would sing Hold the Fort; and he asked them all to join heartily in the chorus. An organ had been secured from the Students’ College. When the chorus was sung it was heard blocks away. At the conclusion of the service Mr. Spurgeon exclaimed: There now, I think our roof will stay on after that!
On reaching Switzerland I sang in many cities. Sailing across Lake Lucerne, and ascending the Rigi, there I again sang Hold the Fort, much to the interest of the Swiss peasants."
Sankey also wrote of a conversion thanks to the hymn "Dr. [Reuben Archer] Torrey, on his return from England recently, called on me and told me that while he and Mr. Alexander were holding meetings in Belfast, one of the most enthusiastic helpers was a typical Irishman, well-known as an active worker all over the city. He was constantly bringing drunkards to the front and dealing with them, said Dr. Torrey, and holding meetings in the open air all over the city. The story of his conversion was exceedingly interesting. At that time he was a prisoner in a cell in Belfast. The window of his cell was open. Mr. Sankey was singing Hold the Fort in another building. There in his cell he accepted Christ under the influence of this hymn. I think he never saw Mr. Sankey in his life."
One other story Sankey shared was “An indication of the impression this and other American songs made upon the people may be seen in the case of the two actors who came on the stage in one of the largest theaters in England and attempted to caricature Mr. Moody and myself. The galleries struck up “Hold the Fort,” and kept on singing the piece until the actors had to withdraw from the stage. On their reappearing, with the purpose of continuing the performance, the song was once again started, and continued until that part of the entertainment was given up. I have been informed that the cabling of this incident to [America] at the time it took place turned the attention of our countrymen more thoroughly to our work across the sea than all the reports previously sent in relation to the movement over there.
Shortly after the evangelistic work of Henry Varley in Yorkville and Toronto, about 1875, when the songs in the first edition of “Gospel Hymns” were heard all over the land, a carpenter and his apprentice were working on a building in Yorkville. The man was a Christian and had consecrated his fine tenor voice to the Master’s use. The boy had just given himself to Jesus and was also a singer for the Lord. One morning, as they met at the usual hour for work, the following dialog took place between them:
Do you know who is coming here to work today?
No, I did not hear of anybody coming here.
Well there is; and it is Tommy Dodd.
And who might Tommy Dodd be?
He is a painter, and the greatest drunkard and wife-beater in Yorkville.
Well, Joe, we must give him a warm reception.
Yes, we will sing like everything, so that he can’t get a bad word in.
So, when Tommy Dodd came, they struck up Hold the Fort. And they kept on singing till he left his work and came closer to listen. He asked them to sing it over and over again, joining heartily in it himself, for Tommy was very fond of singing. This was followed by an invitation to the young men’s prayer-meeting, where the Spirit led him to surrender to Christ. Afterward he was found at the church instead of the saloon, singing the sweet songs of Zion.”
The Lord used a moment of history to inspire a song, which lead to many conversions. Bliss took a turbulent time in American history to remind us of the turbulent moments in life and our world. He reminded us to hold the fort because Jesus is returning.
The one song the author did not want to be remembered for was the one song memorialized on his tombstone.