Scripture Reading: Psalm 46:1-3,10-11: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fill into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.
This psalm, with the reference to the sea and its waters roaring, reminded me of a hymn that was written in the late 19th century. There are many encouraging stories as to how and why certain hymns were written. One such hymn is, It is well with my soul, which was published in 1876.
The following are the first and fourth stanzas from this great old hymn:
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.
And, Lord haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.
Horatio G. Spafford, a 43-year-old Chicago businessman, had suffered a personal financial calamity in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He and his wife were still grieving over the death of their only son shortly before the fire. Spafford realized they the family needed to get away for a vacation. He decided to take his family on a trip to England, knowing that their friend and well-known evangelist Dwight L. Moody was going to be preaching in England that fall. However, urgent business delayed Mr. Spafford, so his wife Anna and his four daughters sailed on ahead and he made plans to set sail a few days later.
The ship that his wife and four daughters were sailing on was struck by another ship and sank in 12 minutes in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Two hundred and twenty-six people lost their lives in this terrible accident. Mrs. Spafford amazingly survived, but all four of their daughters drowned at sea. On reaching the European mainland, Mrs. Spafford sent her husband a telegram with the sad message, “Saved alone.”
Stories differ as to when the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” was written. Some believe it was written while Spafford was on a ship to rejoin his wife in Cardiff, Wales. When the captain informed him that they were passing over the scene of the accident, what depth of pain-filled grief must have flooded over him. It could have been at that moment that the Holy Spirit inspired him to put in writing these words, “When sorrows like sea billows roll; whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Others feel Spafford wrote this hymn about two years later when Moody and his music evangelist Ira Sanky were staying at the Spafford home. We all know how friends can surely be a source of comfort and encouragement during difficult circumstances. Spafford, in spite of his anguish, could say along with the apostle Paul, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). Would you or I be content if we were faced with a similar situation?
This bereaved, loving father longed for the day when he would see his four beautiful daughters and son again. “And Lord haste the day when the faith will be sight, the clouds will be rolled back as a scroll; the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.” The hope of being reunited with their beloved children gave these parents the courage to continue on by living in faith. Their hearts were comforted and strengthened by the truth of the resurrection.
This hymn is a beautiful expression of worship—”Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Each verse contains wonderful expressions of faith and truth. In spite of the horrible tragedy, the comfort that comes from a strong faith in God shines brightly through the gloom. This hymn echoes of pain and suffering but also of the eternal hope that all believers have.
Although the words “it is well with my soul” are not found in Scripture, Jesus did say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened … and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). Our compassionate heavenly Father gives us comfort, hope and peace through His Son Jesus Christ.
Philip Bliss (1838-1876), composer of many songs including Let the Lower Lights be Burning, and Jesus Loves Even Me, was so impressed with Spafford’s life and the words of his hymn that he composed a beautiful piece of music to accompany the lyrics. The song was published by Bliss and Sankey, in 1876.
For more than a century, the tragic story of one man has given hope to countless thousands who have lifted their voices to sing, It Is Well With My Soul.
The Spaffords had two more daughters born after the shipwreck tragedy and then the family moved to Jerusalem. Horatio Spafford died of malaria in 1888. However, this man’s story and the song that he wrote lives on today as a testimony to all believers that we can find peace in God in spite of the tragic circumstances that we may find ourselves in . Through faith in God there is the promise of peace and contentment for those who place their faith and trust in Him.
Source used: Cathy Sheridan, Christianity.ca