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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

It is Well with My Soul

Updated: May 21, 2020

Portions of the following Thought for the Week were written by Barnabas Piper and published on December 13, 2019 in American Songwriter

Heartbreak gives birth to great songs. Love lost, loved ones missed, and even tragedies elicit the emotions that can best be expressed in the medium of music.

These songs move listeners and stir up memories bringing about feelings of nostalgia or melancholy…that sort of sadness that leaves us feeling better. But how often do we encounter a song of worship and gratitude that was inspired by heartbreak?

The classic hymn It is Well with My Soul is just such a song. Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) was a successful lawyer and real estate investor in Chicago. He and his wife, Anna, had one son and four daughters and lived a life of philanthropy and service in their church, until 1871 that is.

In that year they lost their four-year-old son to scarlet fever and a few months later the great Chicago fire wiped out the majority of their property holdings. They made it through the next two years until, in 1873, tragedy struck again.

The Spaffords had planned to visit Europe as a family, but business kept Horatio behind. On the voyage, the ship on which Anna and their four daughters were traveling struck another vessel and sank rapidly. Only Anna survived; she sent a hauntingly brief telegram to Horatio bearing the words “Saved alone.”

One can only imagine Spafford’s grief upon receiving the news. It must have been paralyzing. But on his own voyage to meet Anna as his ship neared the place where his daughters had drowned he was inspired to write the lyrics for what was to become the hymn “It is Well with My Soul.” 

Unlike many heartbreak songs, it focuses less on what was lost and more on where hope can be found. No doubt Spafford was shattered by the loss of his daughters, but his heart turned to the faithfulness of God in the midst of loss and the work of Jesus to rescue sinners. The hymn does not diminish or gloss over pain and tragedy but rather proclaims that God is present in them and greater than them.

The music for “It is Well with My Soul” was composed by Philip Bliss, a songwriter and gospel singer, and the hymn was first published in 1876 in a songbook produced by Ira Sankey, the song leader for renowned evangelist Dwight Moody. The lyrics and music have gone unchanged in the 140+ years since and it is one of the most beloved and commonly sung hymns in churches across America.  

The original manuscript of It is Well with My Soul had only four verses, but Spafford's daughter, Bertha Spafford Vester, who was born after the tragedy, said an additional verse was later added and the last line of the original song was modified. The music, written by Philip Bliss, was named after the ship on which Spafford's daughters died, Ville du Havre.

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. (Refrain:) 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 hath regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul. (Refrain) 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! (Refrain) For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live: If Jordan above me shall roll, No pain shall be mine, for in death as in life Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul. (Refrain)

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. (Refrain)

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