History of Hymns: “It Is Well with My Soul”

by C. Michael Hawn

"It Is Well with My Soul"
Horatio G. Spafford
The UM Hymnal, No. 377

Horatio Spafford

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.


With this hymn comes one of the most heartrending stories in the annals of hymnody. 

The author, Horatio G. Spafford (1828-1888), was a Presbyterian layman from Chicago. He had established a very successful legal practice as a young businessman and was also a devout Christian. Among his close friends were several evangelists including the famous Dwight L. Moody, also from Chicago. 

Spafford’s fortune evaporated in the wake of the great Chicago Fire of 1871. Having invested heavily in real estate along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, he lost everything overnight. In a saga reminiscent of Job, his son died a short time before his financial disaster. But the worst was yet to come. 

Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck tells the story: “Desiring a rest for his wife and four daughters as well as wishing to join and assist Moody and [his musician Ira] Sankey in one of their campaigns in Great Britain, Spafford planned a European trip for his family in 1873. In November of that year, due to unexpected last-minute business developments, he had to remain in Chicago, but sent his wife and four daughters on ahead as scheduled on the S.S. Ville du Havre. He expected to follow in a few days.
 
“On November 22 the ship was struck by the Lochearn, an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, ‘Saved alone.’” 

Spafford left immediately to join his wife. This hymn is said to have been penned as he approached the area of the ocean thought to be where the ship carrying his daughters had sunk. 

Another daughter, Bertha, was born in 1878 as well as a son, Horatio, in 1880, though he later died of scarlet fever. After the birth of daughter Grace in 1881, Spafford and his wife moved to Jerusalem out of a deep interest in the Holy Land. There they established the American Colony, a Christian utopian society engaged in philanthropic activities among Jews, Muslims and Christians. 

After decades of benevolent activities, the Colony ceased to be a communal society in the 1950s, though it continued in a second life as the American Colony Hotel, the first home of the talks between Palestine and Israel that eventually led to the 1983 Oslo Peace Accords.
On a personal note, this was a hymn often sung on Sunday evenings in my congregation as I was growing up. Its somber and peaceful music, written by gospel songwriter Philip Bliss (1838-1876) and named after the ship that carried Spafford’s daughters to their death, was spellbinding to a young boy. Yet I had difficulties identifying with the text in many ways. 

The hymn came to life for me in the summer of 1981. I had taken a group of youth to Chicago to work in an inner-city church that housed several congregations of immigrant groups. I chose to attend the Vietnamese service, which I was told consisted of refugees from the Vietnam War—the famous Boat People who had fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. 

I hadn’t been back to the Chicago area since I had graduated from a college in a nearby suburb in 1970. During my time in college, the draft was reinstated, protests of the Vietnam War were numerous and the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in the city were infamous. Returning to Chicago 11 years later, the memories of the Vietnam War were fresh on my mind. 

As the Vietnamese congregation gathered to worship, they sang the same song every Sunday to begin their worship, “It Is Well with My Soul.” I didn’t need the words in English as I had memorized them as a boy. I was amazed at how closely this text, written over 100 years earlier, coincided with the struggles of these immigrants as they fled a hostile Vietnam in frail ships, miraculously arriving in Australia and other places. 

As the Vietnamese congregation, now residing in Spafford’s hometown of Chicago, sang the final stanza, I understood the power of a hymn to transcend time and culture to address human tragedy with assurance. Though the hymn begins with loss, it ends in eschatological hope for the day when “faith shall be sight.”
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns

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