It is Well with My Soul



Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 2 Peter 1:2

I love music, perhaps because my father was a musician and played piano his entire life. I was too lazy as a child to keep up with piano lessons, and switched to playing a bass violin until I was in high school.  When I retired a few years ago, I decided to join our worship team at church. I described myself as a 70-year old rookie since I have neither had  any formal training nor done any singing in my life.  None!   I have found joy in being a part of the worship experience.  I’ve learned a number of things, including reading music better, and realizing that the role of a worship leaders is to help others connect to God through music. The goal of the worship leader is not to call attention to themselves, but to have the privilege of leading others to an encounter with God. Or, as someone once said, if it’s not “happening” to the people in the seats, then what is happening on stage doesn’t matter.

I’ve also learned a number of songs, some of them new and some being older ones with an updated arrangement which still have a heart connection.  We recently performed the song  It is Well with My Soul, written by Horatio Spafford in 1873. The song has always been a favorite of mine. The song itself is remarkable, but the story behind the song is riveting and compelling.

Some of you may know the back story to the song’s creation, but in case you don’t it is worth repeating. The song was written by Horatio Spafford and the music composed by Phillip Bliss and has been a popular song since the late 1870’s.  Stafford, a wealthy lawyer and businessman in Chicago,  counted as friends noted Christians such as Dwight Moody, among others. At the height of his success, his son died at age 2 and shortly afterwards his vast property holdings were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  On top of that, his business interests were hit hard by a recession in 1873.  He had planned to travel with his family to Europe in 1873 for a long postponed vacation, but stayed behind to work on a zoning issue which came up from one of his properties affected by the fire two years earlier.

While his family was crossing the Atlantic on the SS Ville du Havre, the ship collided with another ship and sank quickly, causing the death of all four of Spafford’s daughters. His wife, Anna, survived and sent him a telegram which is now famous saying: “Survived alone.”

Spafford then followed on a ship Europe to join his grieving wife.  When his ship passed near the spot in the Atlantic Ocean where his daughters died, Spafford was inspired to write It is Well with My Soul.  Picture this:  a song as uplifting as this song is written by a man who had lost 4 children, and had suffered financial ruin, yet at that moment, he could pen the now famous words: “When sorrow like sea billows roll; it is well, it is well with my soul.”  While I have never experienced the death of a child, I have suffered financial setbacks, and I can tell you that in the middle of my own experience,  which pales in comparison, I don’t think I would have been able to write a song such as this.

Armed with the back story of Spafford’s circumstances, the lyrics of the song are made more remarkable.  I cannot imagine a father reflecting on his circumstances yet in such moment can pen the line “It is well with my soul.”  The first verse goes like this:

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.

The ending of the Spafford’s story also needs to be told. After returning to America, he and his wife had three more children and moved to Jerusalem in 1881.  They helped set up a philanthropic effort called the American Colony which served Jews, Christians and non-Christians alike with philanthropic efforts.  The Colony was joined by Swedish Christians and played a critical role in providing soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals to oppressed communities of Jews and Christians both during and after World War I. The Colony later became the subject of Jerusalem by the Nobel prize-winning Swedish author,  Selma Lagerlöf.

The theme of this post is how one finds grace and peace in God in the face of heartbreaking circumstances or tragedy in our lives. When we feel faith-less, God is faithful. When we feel weak, God is strong. Our challenge is the same as that faced by Spafford.   Our answer is what Spafford found: we need to rest in the hands of our Lord so that we may be able to sing It is Well with My Soul regardless of what life throws at us.  Only a belief in a loving God can inspire one to be at peace in every circumstance.  Spafford found a peace which was anchored in God in spite of the most debilitating adversity. He had hope – a hope that transcends all human understanding. We share that same hope and need to learn to lean into God when tragedy strikes.

Bill Mann

LYRICS:  You can find the lyrics to the It is Well with My Soul here:

WORSHIP:  Listen to It Well with My Soul:

A Matt Redman contemporary variation on this song can be found at:

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