It Is Well With My Soul

Exploring the tragic story behind the famous hymn
and the amazing man who wrote it



Sunday, February 8, we played an instrumental version of a old hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul." There are few hymns in the history of Christian hymnody more loved and recognizable than the song written in the latter part of the 19th century.  

It turns out this hymn was not borne in a period of spiritual or temporal easiness. Progress in the arena of spirituality rarely happens that way, if ever. William Penn, while a prisoner in the London Towers, told us this truth in plain English: "No Cross, No Crown." Many have known this truth experientially, but few have been able to tell us in such a haunting and memorable way as Horatio Spafford, the author of the poem that became the hymn we love.

At the beginning of 1871, no one could see that Horatio Spafford was about to live the saga of the Biblical character Job. At the outset of the year, he was flourishing in every way possible. He and his wife were parents to five children, a son and four daughters. He was a lawyer in Chicago with more than enough people seeking his legal counsel and with the profits from his labor he had invested heavily in real estate in Chicago. Moreover, he was a man of faith, a follower of Jesus who counted among his close friends Dwight Moody, the Billy Graham of his era. In brief, at the beginning of the year, he truly did have it all. 

But tragedy was about to strike. Hard. 

His son became ill, never recovered, and died. 

Still reeling from every parent's worst nightmare, the great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped him out financially. Literally all of his investments went up in smoke overnight. 

But the saga in which he found himself wasn't finished. In fact, it was gaining momentum and was about to strike with a vengeance. 

Two years later, in 1873, exhausted and still grappling with all his losses, this father and husband decided to take his wife and four daughters on a vacation to exhale and breathe, maybe for the first time in two years. Passage for his family was booked on a transatlantic "cruise" to England on the S. S. Ville du Hauvre.

Remember the Chicago fire? Remember the financial losses? As the family was getting ready to depart, a business opportunity came to Spafford. Given the need for a financial turnaround, he decided to stay behind for a few days of work and sent his family on to England. He would meet them in England in a few days. That was the plan. It all made sense. 

Here's what happened... 

On November 22, 1873 midway across the Atlantic, the Ville du Hauvre was struck by another ship in the middle of the night while most passengers were asleep. The du Hauvre sank in just twelve minutes. 226 passengers and crew drowned, including all four of Horatio's daughters.

“When peace like a river, attendeth my ways, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’”

61 passengers survived, picked up by the ship that struck the Ville du Hauvre and taken on to England. Among the survivors was Mrs. Spafford. Arriving in England, she wired her husband and told him of the devastating tragedy with these tragic words: "Saved alone." One can only imagine the pain that gripped both the husband/father and the wife/mother.

Horatio Spafford immediately boarded a ship to be with his heart-broken wife, who was now alone in England. As his ship came close to the location where his daughters had drowned, he poured out his grief and clung to his faith in these now famous words: "When peace like a river, attendeth my ways, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, 'It is well, it is well with my soul.'"

It is an honor to include this old hymn in the way we gather around our faith. The cadence and rhythm of the words tell us of the depth of this man's pain. The imagery and emotions tell of the rawness and reality of his pain. The inspiring conviction tell us how faith can be when it's living and genuine.  This sung story is as good as it gets and it demonstrates what faith and spirituality can be.