Peter Philip Bilhorn died on December 13, 1936.
He was born in Mendota, a little town in Illinois, USA, on 22 July, 1865, three months after his father was killed in the Civil War.
The family had migrated from Swiss Bavaria and their original family name was ‘Pulhorn’. This had been legally changed by a judge in Ottowa, Illinois … the young Abraham Lincoln.
By the age of eight Peter had finished his school days – it was needful for him to find work and to help support a struggling family.
In 1976 the Bilhorns moved to Chicago, and here he became a popular singer in German concert halls and beer gardens.
A series of gospel meetings was being held in the Moody Church by Dr George Pentecost … 20 year-old Peter Bilhorn was converted on the 12th consecutive night of his attending.
Before long he was a part of the George Pentecost team, singing the gospel and being involved in a preaching ministry to the cowboys of the Dakotas.
Bilhorn’s musical talents, although lacking some learning, were put to use in several ministry contexts. He was able to gain musical training from George Root, George Stebbins and others who encouraged his talent.
In 1886 Bilhorn was working as musical director for Francis Rowley at the First Baptist Church of North Adams MA. Bilhorn asked Rowley to provide him a hymn to compose music for. Rowley quickly wrote what is now known as “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”, and Bilhorn provided the tune. Bilhorn showed the hymn to George Coles Stebbins in Brooklyn. Stebbins offered to teach Bilhorn harmony, singing and music, without charge. Stebbins also introduced Bilhorn to meet the famous song-leader, hymn-writer, and music publisher, Ira David Sankey.
Peter had a good mind for business and he and his brother George founded the Eureka Wagon and Carriage Works in Chicago.
In need of a portable organ, he invented one: weighing less than 70 lbs., it could be folded into a case. The Bilhorn Folding Organ became popular among gospel singers.
A story is recorded of him visiting a gambling hall in Reedsburg, Wisconsin: He found 18 men sitting around a gambling table. Opening his organ he said: “Boys, let me sing to you,” and he sang, “Where is my wandering boy tonight?” During the second verse he began to weep, and so did many of the men. Sixteen professed conversion.
Bilhorn created the Bilhorn Bros. Organ Co of Chicago, with his brother George, to manufacture and market his portable organs. Their 1916 catalogue showed 21 varieties of portable organ produced by the company.
Billy Sunday used him as song-leader before Homer Rodeheaver took over that position.
Bilhorn conducted a choir of 4000 voices in the Crystal Palace (England) at the 1900 World Christian Endeavour Convention. Queen Victoria invited him to sing in the chapel of Buckingham Palace.
His name is attached to over 2000 gospel songs, sometimes as author, sometimes as composer, or both. For example, he wrote both words and music of “Peace, peace, sweet peace, wonderful gift from above”.
He died in Los Angeles, his home-going words being: “What is that? Jesus – that is all right.”
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com