Updated: May 3, 2020
Philippians 4:7; Colossians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:52
Text: Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) Tune: Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876)
1. 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.
R/ It is well, (it is well), With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
2. 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.
3. 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!
4. And Lord, haste the day when the 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!
Horatio Spafford, a wealthy Chicago lawyer and business man, was a devout
Christian who supported the cause of Abolition before the Civil War. Among his
many missions was teaching Sunday School. One of his students was a young
Norwegian woman, Anna Larsson, with whom he fell in love. Because she was still
too young to marry, he sent her to boarding school for three years. They married
when she was eighteen.
Their home became a center for religious reform movements in the Chicago area. They had become friends of Dwight Moody and supported his work. In 1871, their son died and some months later the Chicago fire destroyed Spafford’s substantial properties. Then the
financial Panic of 1873 almost ruined him. Still he had the resources to send his
family to Europe.
Because he needed to finish some business, he sent his wife and four daughters
ahead of him. Their ship, SS Ville du Havre, collided with the Loch Earn. Within a very
brief time Ville du Havre sank, taking with it all four of the Spafford girls. Anna,
survived, found floating on a scrap of the ship. She sent a famous telegram, “Saved
Spafford left immediately to be with her. When he approached the spot where the
ship had sunk, it is said he began writing the hymn “It is Well with my Soul.”
The couple returned to Chicago. They continued their religious work as Spafford
built up his fortune again. They had a daughter, Bertha, and a boy who died of
scarlet fever. Sorrow after sorrow came upon them, so much so that people began
wondering what hidden sin the family had committed to be punished by God over
and over again. This caused the Spaffords great agony.
To find peace, they moved to Jerusalem where they would establish what became
the American Colony Hotel. Their settlement attracted many who wanted to be in
Jerusalem when Jesus returned supposedly at the turn of the century. A group of
Swedes left Småland to join the colony. The story is told in Selma Lagerlöf’s novel,
Jerusalem, for which she won the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1996, Bille August did
a movie of the epic.
Spafford’s words of faith and his agony over what he took to be God’s punishments,
or the buffeting of Satan, drove him toward God rather than from him. While it is
cozy, maybe, to be confined to one’s home for a while, there is much to worry about
too. How will one emerge from the financial devastation the quarantine may cause?
What if we or someone in our family or friends becomes ill or dies from the virus?
In the teeth of the worst grief we can imagine, the loss of children, Spafford found
comfort in what Christ had done for him. In the midst of the sorrows rolling over
him like sea billows, he went to the one who gives peace and who will, finally, come
to bring us home. Spafford’s hymn shows us how to live in hope, looking for the day
when our faith will become sight.
Philip P. Bliss was part of the Sunday School and gospel music wave of the 19th century. He wrote many well known tunes in that genre. He died early in the train wreck disaster in Ashtabula Ohio in 1876 on his way to play for the Moody revivals. This tune remains his most well regarded. There are hundreds of Youtube performances of this hymn. These two seemed special today.
I am partial to the fine setting by Rene Clausen, the newly retired conductor of the
Concordia Choir in Moorhead sung by the Wartburg College Choir.
Another one from South Africa.