“Man of Sorrows! What a Name,” a hymn also known by its repeating refrain “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” was written in 1875. The author, Philip P. Bliss, took his title from Isaiah 53.
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root from a dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.
Knowing Bliss wrote several of his hymns based on sermons he heard preached, it is possible that a sermon from Isaiah 53 also inspired him or perhaps it was his own personal reading of this moving and prophetic chapter that gave him the inspiration to write this hymn.
The first stanza introduces the Savior and his purpose for coming here: “Ruined sinners to reclaim.”
The second stanza paints a vivid picture of the sacrifice Christ gave for us. “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood.”
The third illustrates the contrast between us “guilty, vile and helpless we” and our Savior, “Spotless Lamb of God was He.”
The fourth proclaims both his death and triumphant finish and the fifth proclaims His return when we’ll sing forever, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”
Ira D. Sankey, a singer for D. L. Moody’s evangelistic meetings–who also wrote hymns and compiled a book of hymns with Bliss–wrote of the hymn “Man of Sorrows” in his autobiography. “When Mr. Moody and I were in Paris, . . . I frequently sang this hymn as a solo, asking the congregation to join in the single phrase, “Hallelujah, what a Savior,” which they did with splendid effect.
“It is said that the word ‘Hallelujah’ is the same in all languages. It seems as though God had prepared it for the great jubilee of heaven, when all his children had been gathered home to sing ‘Hallelujah to the Lamb!'”
(Is there any other word that is recognized in all languages? In both Italian and Irish–hallelujah; in Spanish–aleluya; in Slovak–aleluja; in Swahili–Haleluya. ‘Hallelujah, what a Savior’ will surely be heard in heaven.)
Bliss discovered his love of music at a young age and studied when he could, eventually becomin an itinerant music teacher. When he was 26, he and his wife moved to Chicago where he conducted musical institutes and was soon known for both his teaching and singing. One night in 1869, he passed a revival meeting where D. L. Moody was preaching. Apparently, the singing was “rather weak” that night, and Bliss offered his help. After a quick interview, Moody accepted his offer and later urged him to give up his business and become a singing evangelist.
In 1873, Bliss did decide to give up everything (musical conventions, writing secular songs, business position, and work at the church) in order to go full-time into singing music for evangelism.
On November 24, 1876, Bliss sang at a minister’s meeting led by D. L. Moody in Chicago. Over 1,000 preachers were there to hear Bliss introduce a song he had just written the music for: It is Well with My Soul. He had only a month left to live.
Again, from Sankey’s autobiography: “This was the last hymn I heard Mr. Bliss sing. It was at a meeting in Farwell Hall in Chicago, conducted by Henry Moorehouse. A few weeks before his death Mr. Bliss visited the State prison at Jackson, Michigan, where, after a very touching address on ‘The Man of Sorrows,’ he sang this hymn with great effect. Many of the prisoners dated their conversion from that day.”
Bliss and his wife and children spent Christmas that year with his mother and sister in Pennsylvania, planning to return to Chicago in January to work with Mr. Moody. He received a telegram asking him to come sooner, so he and his wife obtained train tickets, deciding to leave their children with his mother. On December 29, 1876, the Pacific Express was three hours late due to a blinding snowstorm. Crossing a river over a trestle bridge, the first engine reached the other side but the rest fell 75 feet into the ravine of icy water.
Mr. Bliss managed to free himself, crawling through a window. However, his wife was trapped and he returned to try and help her. A fire broke out and soon the wooden coaches were ablaze aided by the fierce winds. The Blisses, along with at least 92 others, did not survive.
As Mr. Bliss’s trunk was sent ahead on another train, it reached Chicago safely. Inside were several songs, Mr. Bliss was working on. One hymn, “He Knows,” by Mary G. Brainard (Bliss wrote the music and chorus) began with the words: “I know not what awaits me. God kindly veils my eyes . . .”
Mourning the loss of Mr. Bliss, D.L. Moody had this to say about his friend: “In my estimate, he was the most highly honored of God, of any man of his time, as a writer and singer of Gospel Songs, and with all his gifts he was the most humble man I ever knew. I loved him as a brother, and shall cherish his memory . . .”
Though the life of Mr. Bliss was tragically cut short, he left a legacy of music that continues to lead us to worship the Man of Sorrows who became our glorious King.
My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns: and of Sacred Songs and Solos Ira D. Sankey
Great article! Interesting story of how some of our greatest music was written. Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading!