Hymns & Hymn Writers: It is Well With My Soul

Horatio Gates Spafford

There is little doubt that many of the great hymns written for the church, were composed as men and women were inspired by the God of heaven. Many of them were born in the crucible of circumstance. This was not the same inspiration by which the Holy Scriptures were written; God has reserved a special importance to His Word, carried to mortal men by His Holy Spirit.

Some of these hymns have remained unchanged and preserved for hundreds of years. Over the centuries, they have ministered hope, solace, encouragement, and courage to countless believers. As the stories of some of these hymns have become more widely-known, the circumstances behind the words have conveyed deeper meaning. Their truths have drawn saints closer to God, as they learn how God, in His purpose and plan, allowed these words to come to pass.

Perhaps one of the saddest tales has produced one of the finest of hymns, and no consideration of hymn histories would be complete without considering the story behind the masterpiece, “It is Well With My Soul.”

Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888), was a well-to-do Christian lawyer and businessman, from Chicago, Illinois. Tragedy had twice visited his family; he and his wife had lost their only son, age 4, to scarlet fever, and soon after, the great Chicago fire destroyed many of his buildings and warehouses.

He planned a getaway for himself, his wife and their four daughters in the fall of 1873. Unable to leave due to last-minute business constraints in New York, he booked passage for the rest of his family to Europe on the French steamer, the Ville du Havre. He planned to follow them a few days later.

At 2am on November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre collided with The Loch Earn in the middle of the Atlantic. As their ship was sinking, Mrs. Spafford knelt in prayer with her four daughters, asking the Lord to save them physically, and if not, according to His will, to save them spiritually. The children, Maggie, Tanetta, Annie, and Bessie, along with 222 others, all drowned that dark and terrible night. Mrs. Stafford was one of only a handful of survivors. They were picked up by another vessel, and nine days later, landed at Cardiff, Wales. She telegraphed back to her husband the words “SAVED ALONE.” It is said that he saved and framed this telegram, and it hung in his office for years.

With his heart breaking, he took the next available ship to join his dear wife. On a cold December night, the captain of his vessel called Spafford to the bridge, and informed him that they were very near the spot where his daughters had perished. That night, he was unable to sleep. Alone in his cabin, he wrote down these words: “It is well. The will of God be done.” Not long after, possibly that very night, he penned the words of this amazing hymn.

The following week, he wrote to a relative and said, “On Thursday last, we passed over the spot where she went down in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, dear lambs.”

Did he draw his inspiration for this hymn from 2 Kings 4:26 where a widow, whose son has died tells Elijah “It is well”? He may also have been drawing from the words of Paul in Philippians 4:12 where the apostle writes of his contentment, in every situation. Spafford, in the anguish of his soul, held on to that same faith, when he wrote “whatever my lot … .”

These words are among the finest ever written. Verse 3 is particularly brilliant. In just four lines, he writes of the glorious truths of Calvary, and rests in the eternal security of his salvation and his Savior. The tune for the hymn was written by Philip P. Bliss, who was soon to lose his life in a train accident. He called the tune,”Ville du Havre.”

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.”

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control:
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, Oh, the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin – not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more: Praise the Lord, praise the Lord O my soul!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live; if Jordan above me should roll.
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to 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.

But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord! Blessed hope! Blessed rest of my soul!

The Lord blessed this dear couple, and gave them three more children; a son, who died at age 3, and 2 daughters, Bertha and Grace. The Spaffords moved to Jerusalem in 1881, and built a home for the sick and destitute. Perhaps only Job endured more tragedy and sorrow, than did H. G. Spafford. Yet this dear man, with his soul essentially under siege, rested in his only source of comfort and refuge. In his heartbreak, he left us words that we all know, have sung perhaps hundreds of times, and which will never grow old or lose their value. The heartaches of earth will one day be vanished. As they continue to sadden human existence, how wonderful for every believer to whisper these words of faith and hope, “It is well with my soul.”