Few hymns in the history of the modern church have had as great an impact on the lives of saints as Horatio Spafford’s, “It is Well with My Soul.” The theological depth and richness of his lyrics have been revered for over a hundred years, but we can better appreciate their significance when we understand the circumstances that gave rise to them.
A Presbyterian layman from Chicago, Spafford encountered numerous trials throughout the course of his life. After the death of his son and financial ruin suffered in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Horatio planned a trip to London in 1873 with his wife and four daughters to seek a time of rest from the hardships they had suffered.
In November of 1873, last minute business developments prevented him from making the trip and he sent his family ahead to London. On November 22nd, their ship was struck by another vessel and sank in twelve minutes.
When the survivors reached shore, his wife sent him the message, “Saved alone.” Immediately leaving to join his wife, it is believed that Spafford penned the lyrics as he approached what he thought to be the place where his daughters drowned.
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 hymn opens by describing the peace that Jesus promised to the apostles (Jn 14:27) which surpasses all comprehension and guards the hearts and minds of all believers (Phil 4:7). He recognizes, as did Job, that the trials and tribulations of this life are not outside the sovereignty of God (Job 2:10), and that though there is a season for mourning (Lam 3:4) he is commanded to give thanks in all things (1 Thes 5:18).
Verse two affirms the reality of satanic opposition (1 Pet 5:8) and trials (Jn 16:33), and verse four speaks of the Second Coming of Christ (Mt. 24:30-31). However, the greatest lyrical expression is the clarity of Christ’s atoning death for sins on the cross in verse three (1 Cor 15:4, Isa 53:4-5).
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!
“It is Well with My Soul” has a great deal of significance to me as a worship leader and as a believer. It has been our family hymn for generations and is always the featured moment of each memorial service.
There will come a day when I will sing this hymn in remembrance of a beloved family member or friend. In that moment, the only way I will keep my composure is by standing firm on the glorious truths of the gospel and the unshakeable hope that I have in Christ Jesus.