Born out of the personal tragedy and inspirational faith of Horatio Gates Spafford, ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ has become one of the best loved and most enduring hymns in today's church.
The story behind the verses that still carry the statement of faith from many facing grief, loss and tragedy reads like a retelling of the Old Testament book of Job.
When Peace Like A River Attendeth My Way
Still recorded by contemporary worship musicians including Hillsong (Forever Reign), by classic Christian artists such as David Phelps (The Best of David Phelps) and in traditional hymn collections (The Best Hymns Album In The World Ever), the story behind the hymn is as deeply moving as its lyrics and perfectly matched melody.
By 1870, Horatio Gates Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer with every reason to be thankful and faithful to God. A supporter of preachers Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey, prominent Christian evangelists formed part his circle of friends.
In 1871, his four year old son died. While struggling with this personal tragedy, the Great Chicago Fire of the same year reduced the family’s property investments and financial security to ashes. What remained was seriously devalued in the financial downturn that followed.
When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll
To give the family time and space to recover, Horatio made plans for him, his wife and four daughters to join and encourage Moody and Sankey on one of their European preaching tours. Boarding the SS Ville du Havre in November 1873, a business emergency forced Horatio to remain in Chicago while the family went on ahead.
In mid Atlantic, the Ville du Havre had collided with another ship, the Loch Earn, and sank in 12 minutes with the loss of 226 of the 307 passengers and crew.
Several days later Horatio Spafford received a telegram from his wife in Wales, Anna: “Saved Alone.” All four of their daughters: Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and baby Tanetta - torn from her mother’s arms by force of water, were lost.
Whatever My Lot, Thou Hast Taught Me To Say
Horatio immediately set off for Wales to bring his wife home. On the crossing to Wales, the ship’s captain summoned Horatio to the bridge informing him that: “A careful reckoning has been made and I believe we are now passing the place where the Ville du Havre was wrecked.”
Horatio G. Spafford returned to his cabin and that night wrote the words which became the hymn: "It Is Well With My Soul," to which Arthur Bliss later added his familiar melody. Horatio recorded that: "…we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the water’s three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs."
It Is Well, It Is Well, With My Soul
In her grief and despair, other survivors, feared that Anna might take her own life. Later she spoke of hearing a voice say: "You were saved for a purpose,” and remembered that a friend had once said, "It's easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God."
Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago. In 1876 they had a son, Horatio, and in 1878 a daughter, Bertha. Horatio died from scarlet fever, again aged only four. In 1880 they had another daughter, whom they named Grace.
Even so... It Is Well With My Soul
The following year, the Spaffords and a few of their friends left America for Israel settling in the old part of Jerusalem. Serving the needy, poor, sick and homeless their work became known as the "American Colony" and the subject of Selma Lagerlöf’s Nobel Prize winning novel, Jerusalem.
Find 'It Is Well With My Soul' on: , Hillsong: Forever Reign, Kutless: It Is Well With My Soul, David Phelps: The Best of David Phelps, The Best Hymns Album In The World Ever and Ultimate Hymns Collection: How Great Thou Art. Discover more about this hymn and the soul-stirring stories behind 150 well loved hymns in Robert J Morgan’s ‘Then Sings My Soul’. – Les Ellison
January 25th, 2013 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison