Bliss Mitchell Wiant was born in Dialton, Clark County, Ohio, in 1895, the seventh of eight children. He was the son of William Allen Wiant, a Methodist minister, and Loretta Hoak Wiant. W. A. Wiant hoped that his sons would enter the ministry and possibly go to China.
Bliss met Mildred (“Minn”) Artz, the daughter of Frank Artz, a farmer, and Minnie Walters Artz. They became engaged before he completed his one year military service in the U.S. Navy. He entered Ohio Wesleyan University and graduated with a B.A. in 1920. Mildred graduated on the same day.
During his college days Bliss had become intrigued with China through his friendship with fellow student Hong Ye, who returned to China to become Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Yenching (Yanjing) University in Beijing, the largest Christian college in China.
Bliss studied at Boston University School of Theology in Boston. He and Mildred were married on September 11, 1922. He was ordained as an elder by the Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in May 1923 and the Wiants were appointed as missionaries to China by the Methodist Episcopal Church. They arrived in Beijing in September 1923.
The first year was given to language study, after which he joined the faculty of the School of Theology at Yenching (Yanjing) University in Beijing. The faculty included three Chinese educated in America, two Englishmen, one Irishman, one Swiss and three Americans. He established the department of music at Yenching and Mildred taught vocal music and gave recitals. All four of their children were born in Beijing.
Bliss sought out classical and folk Chinese melodies to combine with Chinese texts to produce original hymns for use by Chinese Christians. His most frequent collaborator was Zhao Zichen (T.C. Chao), who was dean of the Yenching School of Religion. In 1931 ‘Hymns for the Peoples,” a collection of 50 Chinese melodies was published. Zhao composed the lyrics for these hymns.
In October 1932 ten students at Yenching were majoring in music - twice the number of the previous year. Eighty students (ten percent of the entire student body) were taking private lessons in piano and voice. Mildred was teaching ten students how to sing, Bliss was teaching twenty to play piano and two other instructors taught the other 50 students.
The first edition of the “Fellowship Hymns” sold out all 2000 copies in January 1932. It contained 120 hymns translated by Zhao Zichen. The hymnal, written in literary Chinese, was designed to meet the need of educated youth. The second edition sold 2500 copies in nine months in 1933.
The Wiants took their second furlough in June, 1935. After visiting family in Ohio, they went to Boston, where Wiant did graduate work, gaining an M.A. from Boston University. In lieu of a thesis, Wiant’s six numbers for chamber orchestra based on Chinese melodies were performed by members of the Boston Symphony. In the summer of 1936 the family returned to Beijing.
Because of the Japanese invasion and the closing of many colleges, Yenching’s student population grew quickly to 900 in August 1939. Bliss was elected to the executive committee of the Christian Fellowship (the only Westerner); he served as treasurer. With the disruption of north China, the Wiants left their home in China in January 1941 and arrived in Ohio the following month.
The next academic year Mildred studied voice while Bliss studied at Union Theological Seminary. He then was assigned to teach hymnology, choir conducting and choral music at the Methodist’s Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville, Tennessee, where he served from 1942 to 1946. He also conducted a choir composed of students from Scarritt and Vanderbilt School of Religion. In 1946 he completed his dissertation on “The Music of China” at the George Peabody College at Vanderbilt.
In July,1947, they left New York City, via the Panama Canal, for Shanghai - a voyage taking a month. Once they arrived back in Beijing, the head of Yenching’s Music Department was Bliss’s former student, Hsu Yun-San. In 1948, Bliss became acting president of Yenching. In January, 1949, the Chinese Communists occupied Beijing. The Wiants left their home at Yenching in April 1951 after China entered the Korean War and they were denounced in posters around campus.
After a trip through Europe, they arrived in the U.S. in July, 1952. In June, 1953, Wiant became pastor of St. Paul Methodist Church in Delaware, Ohio. He served for two years before becoming the Minister of Music and Visitation at the Mahoning Methodist Church in Youngstown, Ohio. After two years he received an invitation from the Methodist Board of Education, in Nashville, Tennessee, to be the director of Ministry of Music, a position he held for 4 years.
Time magazine published an interview with Wiant in the August 31, 1959, issue.
“The gospel hymn is a Victorian development - sentimental and good for nothing. Its message is that everything is blessed and peaceful. That’s not the message of Christ. The message of Christ is ‘Are you able to endure all things as I endure them - even crucifixion?’” If hymns must be sung, Wiant would prefer such Reformation hymns as A Mighty Fortress is Our God and O God, Our Help in Ages Past.”
After teaching Church Music again at Scarritt in Nashville, the Wiants went to Hong Kong in October, 1963, to be the directors of music programming for a new radio station that would reach Chinese in China and Southeast Asia. They lived on the campus of Chung Chi University in Hong Kong. Though those plans did not materialize as hoped, they worked on translating every indigenous text used in the Hymns of Universal Praise (HUP) into English. They wrote friends from Yenching days:
“We’ve had an unbelievably interesting, challenging and rewarding life since coming here. This year has been almost the most productive of our entire lives. Probably the most significant is the translation of anthems, most of which are in the HUP. They have been very, very hard to translate.”
In 1965, they returned to Delaware, Ohio, where Wiant enjoyed helping people have a greater appreciation of everything Chinese. A month after his eightieth birthday he went into a brief coma. Bliss Wiant died in Delaware, Ohio, on November 1, 1975.
One piece of Wiant’s legacy was to introduce and establish the singing of the best sacred choral works of the Western world. The “Messiah” was first performed by a student group in the Far East in the Asbury Methodist Church in Beijing on May 18, 1928. One excerpt from one of his letters reads:
Many of this oratorio group became followers of the Messiah because of this participation. Furthermore, they also realized that in the singing of this work year after year, they were partakers in the proclamation of the Christian gospel to the whole community.
The largest number of participants (200) was at Christmastime, 1938, after Beijing was captured by the Japanese. The “Messiah” was sung by the Yenching chorus every year from that time until Christmas of 1951. The students also performed Mendelssohn’s “Hymn of Praise” and his “Elijah,” Hayden’s “Creation,” Brahms’ “Requiem,” Bach’s “Ascension Oratorio,” and “Easter Cantata.”
Wiant’s second legacy was to develop a truly indigenous hymnody and to see it accepted. Hymns of Universal Praise (P’u Ti’en Sung Tsan), published by the Christian Literate Society Shanghai, China, in 1936. In 1932, Liu Tingfang and Bliss Wiant had been editors of the texts and the music respectively. The hymnal was the joint effort of six groups: representatives of the Anglican and Episcopal churches in China, the Church of Christ China (Presbyterians and 24 other denominations), the East China Baptist Convention (S. Baptist), the Methodist Church (north and south) and the North China Congregational Church. Each cooperating body submitted a list of 100 hymns that were considered to be essential to their faith and practice. Because of duplication the initial list of 600 resulted in 252 hymns. Sixty-two indigenous hymns were also selected, including “The Bread of Life for All Men Broken” by Liu and “Rise to Greet the Sun” written by Zhao.
The Wiants gave their collection of Chinese artifacts to the Ohio State University. Ohio State set up the “Bliss M. and Mildred A. Wiant designated Professorship in Chinese Literature and Culture.”
- Allen Artz Wiant, A New Song for China (Vancouver, B.C.: Trafford Publishing, 2005).