In December 1876, after spending the Christmas holidays with his family in Rome, Pennsylvania, Philip P. Bliss, a singing evangelist, traveling with D. W. Whittle, and his wife left for Chicago for an engagement at Moody’s Tabernacle on the following Sunday. As the train crossed a ravine approaching Ashtabula, Ohio, the cast-iron bridge gave way. Seven cars plunged into the icy riverbed, and burst into flames. Bliss survived the fall and escaped through a window, but he returned to the wreckage in a desperate attempt to rescue his wife and both perished in the fire. Bliss’s trunk was not damaged in the train wreck, and among his personal papers was the poem “I Will Sing Of My Redeemer.”
Early in 1877 Major Whittle invited James McGranahan, a gifted young musician, to come to Chicago for an interview as a possible successor to Bliss. During their conversations Whittle showed McGranahan the poem that had survived the wreck, and McGranahan composed a tune for it. The song was first sung by a men’s quartet at a great tabernacle meeting in Chicago that Spring.