IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL
“But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me” (Ps. 49:15)
INTRO.: A song which gives us hope by reminding us that God will redeem our souls from the power of the grave and receive us is “It Is Well With My Soul” (#626 in Hymns for Worship Revised, #561 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Horatio Gates Spafford, who was born on Oct. 20, 1828, in North Troy, NY, the son of Gazetteer author Horatio Gates Spafford Sr. and Elizabeth Clark Hewitt Spafford. After an early life in New York, he moved while still a young man to Chicago, IL, where he married Anna Larsen of Stavanger, Norway, on September 5, 1861. The Spaffords were well known in 1860s Chicago. Establishing a most successful legal practice, he was a prominent senior partner in a large and thriving law firm and also served as a law professor. As a Presbyterian, he always maintained a keen interest in religion despite his financial success and enjoyed a close relationship with revival evangelist Dwight Lyman Moody as a good friend and supporter. Spafford invested heavily in real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan just north of an expanding Chicago in the spring of 1871. When the Great Fire of Chicago reduced the city to ashes in October of that same year, it also destroyed most of Spafford’s sizable investments. Also about that same time, scarlet fever killed his four-year-old son.
So two years later, in 1873 when his business interests were further hit by an economic downturn, Spafford was advised by his doctor to take a rest and decided that his family should enjoy a holiday somewhere in Europe, They chose England knowing that their friend D. L. Moody would be preaching there in the fall. Due to unexpected, last minute business, Spafford was delayed and had to remain in Chicago. But he sent his family ahead. His wife and their four daughters—eleven-year-old Anna, nine-year-old Margaret Lee, five-year-old Elizabeth, and two-year-old Tanetta—boarded the S. S. Ville du Havre. However, on November 22, 1873, while crossing the Atlantic, their ship was struck by the Loch Earn, an iron sailing vessel, sinking in only twelve minutes, and 226 people lost their lives, including all four of Spafford’s daughters. Mrs. Spafford was picked up by a sailor rowing a lifeboat nearby who spotted her floating in the water unconscious, but the children were never found. When the survivors were landed at Cardiff, Wales, ten days later, Anna Spafford sent a telegram to her husband saying, “Saved alone.” Spafford immediately left to join his bereaved wife.
When his ship was over the place where the wreck had occurred, the captain told Spafford. It is believed that he penned the words to a poem beginning, “When peace like a river attendeth my way,” shortly after that as an expression of his faith in God. Three years later, in 1876, Spafford gave the poem to Ira David Sankey. The tune (Ville du Havre) was then composed by Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876). The song was first published that year in Gospel Songs No. 2 by Sankey and Bliss just before Bliss’s tragic death in a train crash. Anna gave birth to three more children. On February 11, 1880, their son, Horatio Goertner Spafford, died at the age of three, of scarlet fever. Their daughters were Bertha and Grace. Their Presbyterian church regarded their tragedy as divine punishment, and the Spaffords became religious outsiders. In response, they left their Presbyterian congregation, holding faith-based prayer meetings in their own home, and formed their own Messianic sect, dubbed “the Overcomers” by American press. In 1881, the Spaffords, including baby Bertha and newborn Grace, set sail for Ottoman-Turkish Palestine, settling in Jerusalem where they helped found a group called the American Colony and adopted a teenager named Jacob. Four days shy of his sixtieth birthday, Spafford died of malaria in Jerusalem on October 16, 1888, and was buried there in Mount Zion Cemetery.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, “It Is Well with My Soul” has appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1938 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1940 Complete Christian Hymnal edited by Marion Davis; the 1940/1944 New Wonderful Songs edited by Thomas S. Cobb; ; the 1952 Hymns of Praise and Devotion edited by Will W. Slater; the 1959 Majestic Hymnal No. 2 and the 1978 Hymns of Praise both edited by Reuel Lemmons; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1965 Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 edited by Tillit S. Teddlie; the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat; the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church and the 2010 Songs for Worship and Praise both edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.; the 2012 Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs edited by Steve Wolfgang et. al.; and the 2017 Standard Songs of the Church edited by Michael Andrew Grissom; in addition to Hymns for Worship and Sacred Selections.
This song identifies several prongs of the anchor provided by our hope.
- Stanza 1
I. Stanza 1 refers to the peace of God which is like a river
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say (orig. know),
It is well, it is well with my soul.
- Those who trust in God can have a peace that will keep their souls: Isa. 66:12
- This peace is available even when sorrows that might cause anxiety come: Phil. 4:6-7
- Whatever our lot, we can learn to be content knowing that God is with us: Heb. 13:5-6
II. Stanza 2 mentions the assurance of redemption in time of trials
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
- Satan will buffet us through the trials of life: 1 Pet. 4:12-13
- However, those whose hearts are right with God have an assurance regardless of what happens in life: Heb. 10:22
- This assurance is based on the fact that Christ shed His own blood for us: Matt. 26:28
III. Stanza 3 talks about the forgiveness of sins in Christ
My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to His (or the) cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
- Every responsible person has to deal with the problem of sin: Rom. 3:23
- However, Jesus bore our sins on the cross: 1 Pet. 2:24
- Therefore, we bear that sin no more when it is forgiven: Eph. 1:7
IV. Stanza 4 (not in HFWR) says that we have life in Christ
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pain (or pang) shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
- As we have life in Christ, He lives in us: Gal. 2:20
- Jordan poetically symbolizes the time of death: Heb. 9:27
- But we can magnify the Lord in both life and death: Phil. 1:20
V. Stanza 5 (also not in HFWR) tells us that we have a goal to press on for
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.
- We wait for the Lord’s coming: 1 Thess. 1:9-10
- This gives us a goal to keep us pressing on: Phil. 3:13-14
- Thus, we look forward to hearing His voice: Jn. 5:28-29
VI. Stanza speaks of our expectation of Christ’s coming
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,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
(orig. A song in the night, oh my soul!)
- Someday the trumpet will sound: 1 Cor. 15:51-52
- Then the Lord shall descend as promised: Acts 1:11
- We should always live with this expectation so that our attitude will be, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus”: Rev. 22:20
CONCL. The chorus continues to express the well being of the soul who trusts in the Lord
It is well (it is well),
With my soul (with my soul),
It is well,
It is well with my soul.
The original manuscript has only four stanzas, but Spafford’s daughter Bertha states how later the other verses were added, the last line of the original was slightly modified, and a few other alterations were made. Even though this song does not use the word “hope,” it gives us hope. And because of my hope in heaven, I have an anchor which enables me to say, “It Is Well with My Soul.”