Wednesday, August 21, 2013

It is Well With My Soul

Perhaps the hardest test of faith for a Christian believer comes when he or she is struck by a tragic or profound loss: grave illness, the death of a loved one, natural disaster, family or financial turmoil, or the like.  Especially when times are good, we come to expect that "following the rules" and "living right" will ensure a safe, comfortable life; that God will look with favor upon us and protect us from the calamities that befall others, especially those who don't know the truth or follow upright ways. Then, when the worst happens to us anyway, we may wonder in anguish whether God is really there. We may feel betrayed, hurt, and angry: "I don't deserve such punishment! I'm a GOOD person! What more do you want of me?"

The Old Testament Book of Job sheds much light on this problem. In this beautiful parable, Satan suggests to God that the righteous man Job is pious only because God has blessed him with prosperity, and that if Job were deprived of everything he had, he would certainly forsake his faith and curse God. Agreeing to this test, God allows Satan to take away from Job his herds, his servants, and then most tragically, his ten children. Still Job does not curse God, but blesses His name, acknowledging Him as the source of all that we have, now or ever. ("Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."  Job 1:21)  When Satan then smites Job with boils, he again refuses his wife's suggestion to "curse God, and die," replying: "What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:9-10)  Job was in spiritual as well as physical agony almost impossible to imagine, but he knew that a humble follower of God must be ready to accept afflictions as well as all the blessings and mercies He bestows on us. Although God had allowed Satan to do everything he wanted to Job except kill him, Job's reaction nevertheless was, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15).

More light yet is shed in the New Testament. Here we are taught to "glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope . . ."  (Romans 5:3-4)  Even more illuminating is Christ's own teaching as recounted in the Gospel of John:

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. (John 9:1-3)

Thereupon Jesus bid the blind man go and wash in a certain pool, which he did--and received his sight!  Being found by Jesus a while later, the man humbly acknowledged Him as the Son of God.  The man had been a sightless beggar all his life, but his suffering had had a precious purpose: providing an occasion for Christ to manifest His power and His compassion, and for the man to see and be personally touched by his own Savior!

Maybe these truths were in the mind of Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888) when, in the mid-1870s, he wrote the words to one of Christendom's most moving and beloved hymns, It is Well With My Soul.  Although it appears in hundreds of hymnals and gospel music publications, and has been a favorite among believers for well over a century, it's surprising how many people still aren't familiar with this hymn or don't know the incredible story behind it.


If ever there was a modern-day counterpart of Job, it was Horatio Spafford.

Born in Troy, New York in 1828, Spafford excelled academically and after law school, traveled west to Chicago where he taught law, championed the abolition of slavery, and supported the election of Abraham Lincoln. A devout Christian and Presbyterian church elder, by the 1870s Spafford had become wealthy as a senior partner in a large Chicago law firm. He and his Norwegian-born wife Anna were prominent socially and close friends with Dwight L. Moody and other leading evangelists of the day.  After the Civil War Spafford invested large sums of money (much of it borrowed) in Chicago-area real estate. At this point all seemed well indeed in the Spaffords' life.

Horatio and Anna Spafford

But suddenly, their fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse. On October 8, 1871, Horatio Spafford was financially ruined--literally overnight--when the Great Chicago Fire consumed all of his real estate holdings as well as his law office. Although their finances were largely depleted, Anna and Horatio used what resources they had left to help those who were suffering because of the Fire and assist in rebuilding the city.

In 1873, concerned about Anna's declining health, Horatio planned a vacation for his wife and four young daughters in England, where they could also take part in a revival being conducted there by Dwight Moody and musical evangelist Ira D. Sankey.  Shortly before their departure the Spaffords' finances were further strained by the Panic of 1873. Nevertheless, they proceeded with their plans. Anna and the children--11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta--boarded the French steamship Ville du Havre in New York. Horatio was not with them, however; he had been held back at the last minute by business developments--someone had inquired about buying one of his heavily-mortgaged properties--so he promised Anna and the children that he would follow them on another ship to England in a few days.

The Spafford daughters

At two o'clock in the morning of November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by the Scottish iron clipper Loch Earn, and sank in 12 minutes. Of the 273 people on board, only 47 survived. Anna Spafford was found by the Loch Earn's crew dazed and clinging to a piece of wreckage, but the four Spafford girls had all drowned, despite Anna's frantic efforts to save them. When she reached Cardiff, Wales a few days later, having been picked up with other survivors by an American vessel, she cabled home, "Saved alone, what shall I do?"

The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre

Needless to say, Horatio was wracked with grief upon learning of his daughters' fate. He immediately booked passage on another ship to join Anna in England. According to Bertha Spafford Vester, another daughter born to Horatio and Anna several years later--and presumably the story she was told by her father--the captain en route called Horatio to his private cabin and told him that they were then passing the place where the Ville du Havre had gone down. Though at that moment he was surely passing through the "valley of the shadow of death," Horatio returned  to his own cabin and wrote out the lines that would be known ever after as the hymn It is Well With My Soul. Other accounts, however, suggest that Horatio returned to his cabin and wrote simply, "It is well; the will of God be done", and completed the text based on these words about two years later, when Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey were staying at the Spafford home in Chicago.

Either way, no other hymn better expresses the faith, hope, confidence, and contrite submission of the true Christian believer than this one:
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.

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,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

[Bertha Spafford Vester noted years later that the fourth stanza above was added to the familiar version some time after the rest of the hymn was composed.]

Gospel singer and composer Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876), another close associate of Moody and Sankey, was so impressed with Spafford's life and the words of his hymn that he composed a beautiful piece of music to accompany the text. It  was published by Bliss and Sankey in 1876. Bliss called the tune Ville du Havre, after the name of the stricken vessel on which the Spafford girls were lost. Tragically, Bliss himself died with his wife in a train wreck in Ohio, not long after this music was written.


It would be satisfying to say that it was altogether well with the Spaffords after their terrible ordeals with the Great Fire, and then the loss of their daughters. But that wouldn't be quite accurate. In February 1880 their only son, Horatio Goertner Spafford, died at the age of four years, of scarlet fever.  Horatio also came into increasing conflict with the Presbyterian church he attended, over theological and financial issues, and he angrily left the church amid whispers by other church members that his family's trials were divine retribution for their heresy and misconduct. Horatio's law practice suffered, as he became increasingly consumed with a belief that the second coming of Jesus, to Jerusalem, was imminent. The Spaffords formed their own Messianic sect, dubbed "the Overcomers" by the American press. In August 1881, the Spaffords set out for Jerusalem as a party of thirteen adults and three children, and set up what became known as the American Colony.

At first this community was seen as something of a bizarre cult, and regarded with suspicion and disdain, by many Westerners living in Jerusalem. However, in time their work was blessed with success. Colony members, later joined by Swedish Christians, engaged in philanthropic work amongst the people of Jerusalem regardless of their religious affiliation and without proselytizing motives, thereby gaining the trust of the local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian populations. During and immediately after World War I, the American Colony played a critical role in supporting these communities through the great suffering on the eastern front by running soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages, and other charitable ventures. Although the American Colony ceased to exist as a religious community in the late 1940s, individual members continued to be active in the daily life of Jerusalem. Toward the end of the 1950s, the society's communal residence was converted into the American Colony Hotel. The hotel is now an integral part of the Jerusalem landscape where members of all communities in Jerusalem still meet. In 1992 representatives from the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel met in the hotel where they began talks that led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord.

Horatio Spafford died on October 16, 1888, of malaria, and was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery, Jerusalem.  Anna Spafford passed away in 1923 after a long illness, and is buried in the American Colony Cemetery in Jerusalem.


Given the calamitous series of events that led to the penning of It is Well With My Soul, no one would be surprised if it had brimmed with woe and painful resignation over the agonizing, unfathomable will of God. Instead, the hymn is suffused with the most vibrant faith and thankfulness for Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, banishing sin and death and conferring the "blest assurance" of eternal peace and happiness with Him--despite all of the trials and defeats that burden us in this life.  It is Well echoes not only Christ's agonized submission in the Garden of Gethsemane ("My soul is exceeding[ly] sorrowful unto death . . . Nevertheless, not what I will, but what Thou wilt."  Mark 14:34-36), but also the joyful promise of Revelation: "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (Revelation 21:4)


The first presentation below is by an unidentified choir, with beatiful nature scenes accompanying a thoroughly traditional rendition including solos on some verses:

The next rendition is by a large congregation--more than 5,000 people, if I'm reading the notes right-- from the album, Together for the Gospel Live, by Sovereign Grace Ministries. This video also features beautiful nature scenes and lyrics on the screen as the hymn is sung.

My favorite solo rendition is by contemporary Christian artist Chris Rice--again, accompanied by beautiful natural and Christian imagery:

A still more contemporary performance by Christian singer Brian Doerksen can be viewed here, weaving the story behind the hymn with the music using photographs of Horatio Spafford and his family (although it errs about the year in which  their 4-year-old son died).

For an impressive video presentation on the history behind It is Well With My Soul, see the following:

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Every one of us, regardless of how righteously we live, will experience some profound loss during our lives. Christ Himself gives us the warning, and the solution:  "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."  (John 16:33)  The issue isn't whether grave misfortune will or should befall us at some time, but how we deal with that challenge. Will it be with bitterness and despair?  Or will it be with humble submission to the will of our sovereign Lord, thanks for the suffering He endured to purchase us from death, and firm faith in His promise of eternal peace?  It's that "blest assurance" that enables us to overcome the world with Him, and to echo Horatio Spafford in declaring, "It is well with my soul."

They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.Psalm 126:5