History of Hymns: 'Hallelujah! What a Savior'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Hallelujah! What a Savior” (“Man of Sorrows!”)
by Philip P. Bliss
The United Methodist Hymnal, 165
Man of Sorrows! what a name
for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Christianity is, among many things, a faith of paradox—the paradox of the Incarnation that the God of the universe would take on human form in a powerless and impoverished family in a politically occupied country. The paradox that Christ’s ministry among the economically disadvantaged, the socially disenfranchised, and culturally marginalized was such a threat to the halls of power that God would humiliate God’s self on one of the cruelest instruments of human torture ever devised. This hymn explores the latter paradox. Philip Bliss (1838-1876) employs the rhetorical device of paradox in each stanza, detailing an aspect of Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of humanity. The expected conclusion of each stanza would seem most naturally to be one of the classic Christian responses of the church throughout the ages: “Kyrie eleison” (Lord, have mercy”) or “Agnus Dei qui tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” (Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us).
Bliss’s response is indeed a surprise and another paradox: “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” This brief refrain—the final line of each four-line stanza—is the unique feature of this hymn. There are other hymns for Holy Week that cover many of the same biblical and theological themes, indeed, more eloquently. For example, “When I survey the wondrous cross” by English non-conformist Isaac Watts (1674-1748) or “O Sacred Head now wounded” by German pietist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) are more poetically articulate. What is it, then, about Bliss’s contribution that makes this hymn so powerful?
Bliss comes from a different theological and cultural perspective than do Watts and Gerhardt. He was nurtured in the evangelical revival movement of the nineteenth century in the United States. He received some musical training from William B. Bradbury (1816-1868), a disciple of Lowell Mason (1792-1872) and a leading music educator, church musician, and composer, of this era. Bradbury, following in the steps of his mentor Mason, was a major music educator. He was trained in the classical tradition and provided music for many notable text writers, including Fanny Crosby (1820-1915).
Bliss, in turn, became an itinerant music teacher in 1860, sometimes traveling on horseback, while continuing his studies at the Normal Academy of Music (Genesco, NY). He then worked for George F. Root and C.M. Cady, a Chicago publisher, for four years as a staff composer and editor of gospel song collections. His career direction became clearer when he and his wife Lucy became associated with Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899), who encouraged Bliss and Lucy to become evangelistic singers as members of Moody’s revival singing team. Drawing upon his earlier experience as a song book editor, Bliss compiled Gospel Songs (1874), Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875), and Gospel Hymns No. 2 (1876), the latter two with Moody’s famous musician, Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908). Other volumes were geared toward the Sunday School movement including The Charm, a collection of Sunday School music (1871) and Sunshine for Sunday Schools (1873). His work as an editor of gospel song collections helped to establish the designation “Gospel Song” for this emerging genre of evangelistic revival hymns (Watson, “Philip Bliss,” n.p.).
His experience as a composer resulted in approximately 200 gospel hymn texts and tunes, many of which remain staples in this genre, including “Almost persuaded” (1871), “I will sing of my Redeemer” (1876), “Wonderful words of life” (1874), and “Let the lower lights be burning” (1871). Though less known today, he was most famous during his lifetime for “Hold the fort, for I am coming” (1870), a hymn inspired by an account of a Civil War battle near Atlanta when William T. Sherman was making his famous (or infamous) “march to the sea” in 1864. Indeed, Bliss told Ira D. Sankey that he hoped that he would be known for more than “Hold the fort.” Alas, however, his tombstone in Rome, Pennsylvania, reads, “P.P. Bliss, Author of “Hold the fort.”
Those who know “Man of sorrows!” might note that it is different from many of the revivalistic gospel songs for which Bliss is primarily known. The music is more somber than what we might expect, employing only quarter and half notes for three lines. The dotted eighth-sixteenth note rhythm on the words of the refrain, “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”, is a sudden and powerful change that highlights the theological paradox inherent in the response. In general, this hymn draws much more from the compositional style of Lowell Mason, who often employed stately block primary chords (I, IV, V) with minimal chromaticism. For example, see DENNIS, HAMBURG, and OLIVET. ANTIOCH (“Joy to the world”). Mason’s adaptation of Handel, demonstrated that the dotted could be used for more triumphant themes. Bliss would probably have learned this style from his mentor William Bradbury. Though “Man of sorrows” often appears in the Holy Week section of most hymnals today, its use would not have been restricted to this week in the evangelistic context, but could have been sung at any revival meeting where Christ’s suffering and sacrifice for humanity was emphasized.
Ira D. Sankey provides the following account of the composition of this hymn:
Written in 1876, shortly before his death, this was the last hymn I heard Mr. Bliss sing. It was at a meeting in the Farwell Hall in Chicago, conducted by the English evangelist, Henry Moorhouse. 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.
When Mr. Moody and I were in Paris, holding meetings in the old church which Napoleon had granted to the Evangelicals, I frequently sang this hymn as a solo, asking the congregation to join in the single phrase, “Hallelujah, what a Saviour,” 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 shall have been gathered to sing “Hallelujah to the Lamb!” (Sankey, 1906, p. 101)
The hymn first appeared in The International Lessons Monthly (1875) under the title of “Redemption” and later in Bliss and Sankey’s Gospel Hymns No. 2 (1876) with the inscription, Isaiah 53:3, “A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” The tune name, added later by others, appears either as HALLELUJAH! WHAT A SAVIOR, MAN OF SORROWS, or GETHSEMENE in hymnals today.
The text is reproduced in The United Methodist Hymnal without modification from the original, save changes in punctuation. The original publication places the phrase “Man of sorrows” (stanza 1), “Full atonement” (stanza 3), and “It is finished” (stanza 4) in quotation marks. The United Methodist Hymnal substitutes an exclamation point for the quotation marks in stanza 1 and eliminates the quotation marks in stanza 3. The quotation marks are maintained in stanza 4 with the text “It is finished,” although The United Methodist Hymnal also adds an exclamation point.
The first stanza begins with the scriptural allusion, “Man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). The purpose was “ruined sinners to reclaim.” Stanza 2 describes the abuse of the Suffering Servant and identifies with substitutionary atonement: “In my place condemned he stood.” Stanza 3 employs an effective use of antitheses (a juxtaposition of contrasts)—“Guilty, vile, and helpless we; / spotless Lamb of God was he”—followed by a rhetorical question, “full atonement can it be?” indicating the utter astonishment at the capacity of God for grace and forgiveness. The crucifixion is depicted in stanza 4 with Christ’s final words from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), followed by his Ascension. The final stanza points toward the Second Coming.
Carlton R. Young, The United Methodist Hymnal editor, suggests the following performance practice to emphasize the paradox of the text: “. . . each statement about Christ’s passion may be sung slowly with deep devotion, followed ad lib with a rousing ‘Hallelujah! What a Savior’” (Young, 1993, p, 386). “Man of sorrows” is found primarily in Baptist, Methodist, some Reformed, and evangelical hymnals today.
Philip Bliss died in a train crash near Ashtabula, Ohio, en route to sing for a revival led by evangelist Daniel Webster Whittle (1840-1901) in Chicago in 1876 at Dwight Moody’s Tabernacle. Accounts suggest that Bliss initially escaped the accident but returned to the train to rescue his wife from a burning coach.
Philip Bliss and Ira D. Sankey, eds., Gospel Hymns No 2: As Used by Them in Gospel Meetings (New York: Biglow & Main, 1876). https://archive.org/details/hymnsno02blis.
Ira D. Sankey, My Life and Sacred Songs (London: Hodder and Stoughton/Morgan and Scott, 1906), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=pst.000015758248&view=1up&seq=7.
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
J.R. Watson, “Man of Sorrows! What a name,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 26, 2019,
_____, “Philip P. Bliss,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 26, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/philip-p-bliss.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.