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It Is Well With My Soul

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!"

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.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

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"

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live;
If dark hours about me shall roll
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

This popular hymn has a very tragic story behind it. Its lyrics were written by Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888). Spafford was a sincere and devout Christian, an active member of a Presbyterian church. He had a wife, four daughters and a son. He was both a wealthy lawyer and landholder.

In 1871, there was the disaster of the great Chicago fire. The blazing flames ravaged the city, leaving 300 dead and 100,000 homeless. The fire totally wiped out all the assets of Horatio on the shore of Lake Michigan. Only a short time prior, he and his wife lost their only son. Four-year-old Horatio Jr. died of scarlet fever. After the fire, the couple decided to dedicate their efforts in helping the evangelistic missions of D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey. For the next two years, Spafford was able to assist the homeless, impoverished and grief-stricken families who were devastated by the fire. Through him and some others, the people of the city were able to get back on their feet. After two years of such work, Spafford and his family decided to go for a combined rest and mission trip.

They decided to go to England and join Moody and Sankey on one of their evangelistic crusades there. Thereafter, they would travel in Europe for a vacation. Some business affairs delayed his departure. So he sent his wife and four daughters on board the ship as scheduled with a group of friends. However, their French ship, the Ville du Havre, never made it to England. On November 22, 1873, off Newfoundland, it collided with an English sailing ship, the Loch Earn. It sank in just 12 minutes.

All of their four daughters were swept overboard. Anna (age 11), Maggie (age 9), Bessie (age 7) and Tanetta (age 2) were named among the 226 who perished in the aftermath. Mrs. Spafford was one of the 47 who survived. All the survivors were taken to Cardiff, Wales. It was there that Mrs. Spafford sent her husband the heartbreaking telegram with just two words: "Saved alone."

Spafford immediately boarded the next ship to Wales to join his sorrowful wife. The ship's captain told him, "To the best of my calculations, Mr. Spafford, this is where the tragedy occurred." As his ship passed the approximate location, his deep sorrow was mingled with his unwavering faith in God. As Horatio gazed across the billowing waves that had taken all his daughters, he remembered the goodness of God. That night in his cabin, the words came to him in a poem that later became one of the greatest hymns for all time.

Spafford met his wife. When both of them finally saw Dwight Moody, Horatio told him, "It is well. The will of God be done."

When they were back home, they encountered another tribulation - their own church friends. They maintained that there must be some great sins in their lives that caused the Lord to inflict all these tragedies on them. This controversy grew until finally the Spaffords were asked to leave their home church. With unwavering faith and trust in God, they left.

Philip Bliss was the composer of many hymns. Like Fanny Crosby, he often wrote for Ira Sankey. Philip also performed musically in the evangelistic campaigns for Dwight Moody and other 19th century revivalists. He was very impressed with the Spafford story, and Horatio's response to it. As a result, he wrote the music to the poem. The two published the hymn together in 1876.

However the tragic story did not seem to end here. Spafford and his wife went to Jerusalem in 1881 to found and establish a mission for the poor called the American Colony. Shortly before his death in 1888, at the age of 60, Spafford became delusional. He experienced a mental disturbance that caused him to believe he was the second Messiah.

Very few men were able to maintain their faith in the face of such devastating bereavements without faltering spiritually. The natural human tendency, when confronted with such senseless tragedies, would surely question, doubt, blame or accuse God. But through this hymn, we find a man who had been graced by God to mourn without bitterness, to sorrow without anger, to trust without resentment, and to rest in the peace of Christ that surpassed all human understanding.

The remarkable faith of this faithful man enabled him and his wife to believe steadfastly that all things worked together for good to those who loved God and to those who were called according to His purpose.

The ending was a bit disturbing though. The members of his church should have been a Balm of Gilead, ministering healing to their own wounded soldiers. Instead, they drove more nails into the hands of those who needed their love and comfort. Like the friends of Job, they tried to explain the sufferings using their minds instead of their hearts. They assumed that God always rewarded good and punished evil. The sufferings of Job could only mean that he had sinned greatly. This was overly too simplistic. In fact, the opposite was true. Job was given the honor and privilege to suffer for God! He was righteous and faithful. There was none on earth like him. Satan was challenging God that Job was so good because God had blessed him so much. It was God Who allowed Job to be tested to prove that his faith was steadfast and unmovable through trials, temptations and tribulations. Job passed the test.

Our dear brother, Horatio Spafford, was like Job. Whatever man and religion would depict him, I believe God is greater than all we could say, think or imagine. Most of the psalms were written by David, once an adulterer and a murderer. However, God called this "sinner" a man after His own heart.

May the very God of peace sanctify us wholly. May our whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes 5:23). May the grace of God be with us as we give grace to others.

Written on:
28 July 2004