The song, It is Well with My Soul, is known by most people who have attended protestant church services.
Listen to the traditional hymn once before reading on.
The song title belies the turmoil that led to the writing of it. Following is the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.
Horatio Spafford was a wealthy Chicago lawyer in the 1860’s. He had a vibrant law practice. He owned also many properties along the Chicago lakefront. He had five children, four daughters and a son, and everything one could imagine in this life. He was also a strong Christian believer involved in the reform and abolition movements.
The events leading up to the writing of the lyrics began with his son who contracted Scarlet Fever. Today Scarlet Fever is a highly treatable disease, but not in those times. Horatio Spafford’s only son died. The Spaffords were devastated.
Their faith was tested further the following year, in 1871, when the Great Chicago Fire swept through the city. The fire leveled much of the city, killing 250 people and leaving 90,000 people homeless. Spafford did not escape the damage. He lost most of his real estate holdings, though his home and family were spared. Financially depleted, the Spaffords used their remaining resources to feed the hungry, help the homeless, care for the sick and injured and comfort their grief stricken neighbors.
In 1873, with Anna’s health declining, the Spaffords planned a trip to England for some respite and to participate in a revival being held by Dwight L. Moody. The day before departure, however, Horatio was required to tend to a business emergency. Not wanting to disappoint his family, he sent them on ahead, planning to follow on a later ship.
On November 22, 1873, the steamer Ville du Havre was struck by a British iron sailing ship. The Ville du Havre sunk in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It sunk in all all of 12 minutes.
The British sailing ship, though in distress itself, managed to save 81 of the 307 passengers. Another ship, the Trimountain, rescued the survivors from the sinking British vessel, including Anna Spafford.
Anna was found unconscious on some floating debris. She had been sucked down violently in a whirlpool caused by the rapidly sinking ship, pummeled by debris and separated from her daughters. She was taken, bruised, sick and heartbroken, to Cardiff.
That evening she telegraphed Horatio, “Saved alone. What shall I do….”
Their daughters perished, and they were childless. They lost their their fortune and five children in three years.
Upon receiving the telegram, Horatio Spafford left Chicago to go to his grieving wife. As his ship passed the area where her ship had sunk, the captain called Horatio to the bridge. Later that night, Horatio Spafford wrote the words to the well-known hymn: It is Well with My Soul.
The song is inspiring in its uplifting message of God’s great love and assurance of salvation. That these lyrics were penned after three years of unimaginable loss and misfortune – and right after the tragic loss of his four daughters – is testament to a heart that is anchored in God’s eternal love.
While Horatio resigned himself to God, Anna was utterly devastated. The other survivors watched her closely, fearing she would take her own life.
One day, however, Anna said she heard a soft voice speaking to her, “You were saved for a purpose!” She recalled in that moment something a friend said to her, “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.”
Anna joined Horatio in drawing close again to God. The Spaffords spent the rest of their lives living in faith. They had three more children, one of whom also died young of Scarlet Fever.
Many years later, Bertha Spafford Vester, the youngest child of Horatio and Anna Spafford, wrote these words about her father:
In Chicago, Father searched his life for explanation. Until now, it had flowed gently as a river. Spiritual peace and worldly security had sustained his early years, his family life and his home……. All around him people were asking the unvoiced question; ‘What guilt had brought this sweeping tragedy to Anna and Horatio Spafford?’…. Father became convinced that God was kind and that he would see his children again in heaven. This thought calmed his heart, but it was to bring Father into open conflict with what was then the Christian world…. To Father, this was a passing through the “valley of the shadow of death,” but his faith came through triumphant and strong. On the high seas, near the place where his children perished, he wrote the hymn that was to give comfort to so many.
Now, listen to the song, It is Well with My Soul, again, and read the lyrics as you do, thinking of the story behind the song:When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know, It is well, it is well, with my soul. Refrain: It is well, (it is well), With my soul, (with my soul) 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 hath 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 the 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 shall roll, No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life, Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to 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. 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, A song in the night, oh my soul!