It Is Well With My Soul, Part 1: Though Trials Should Come


ship storm

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 has regarded my helpless estate,

And has shed his own blood for my soul. 

 

My sin–O 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!

 

O 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. 

Perhaps no hymn is surrounded by greater tragedy than “It Is Well.” In fact, the author’s own history is so heart-wrenching that one might even wonder how he could write the words at all, words that have been a source of comfort, peace, and encouragement for generations of Christians since.

In many ways, the story of Horatio G. Spafford is reminiscent of Job. A wealthy, God-fearing man who wants for nothing and has a very comfortable life is suddenly bombarded with a series of seemingly inexplicable (from his point of view) disasters that shake him to his core. And at the end, both men are left with only one source of comfort on which to rely: trust in God’s sovereignty, wisdom and grace.

In order to better understand the impact of Spafford’s hymn, I think it is important to first take a closer look at his life and what he suffered through. Due to length, I will be dividing this hymn analysis into two posts. This first part will focus on the back story of the hymn, while the second part (to be posted tomorrow) will focus on the music and how it supports the text.

As a foretaste, here is a beautiful instrumental arrangement of the song. I recommend letting it play while you read the story, but that’s up to you, of course.

Let us then travel back in time 144 years (or one gross, as Bilbo would say), and meet the man behind the hymn…


The year is 1871. Horatio G. Spafford is a successful lawyer and devout Christian living in Chicago, Illinois with his wife and four daughters. In addition to his profitable legal practice, Spafford has also invested heavily in real estate in the area. So it is safe to say the family is well off, and life is pretty good. But that’s about to change.

In October, the great Chicago fire tears through the city for two days, killing at least 300 people and leaving upwards of 100,000 homeless. $200 million of real estate is destroyed, including Spafford’s own investments–and he is financially ruined.

As devastating as this turn of events might be in and of itself, it is not the last of his trials.

The worst is yet to come.

Jump ahead two years later, to 1873. Spafford plans a vacation trip in Europe for his family, where they can enjoy some much-needed time resting and recovering from the difficulties of the past two years. He also hopes to help out his friends Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey with their evangelic efforts in Great Britain. However, some last-minute business detains him prior to the trip, so Spafford sends his wife and daughters on ahead with plans to catch up with them once his business is completed.

Mrs. Spafford and their four daughters board the S.S. Ville Du Havre and sail across the Atlantic towards Europe. But the ship never makes it.

On November 22, the Du Havre collides with another ship and sinks rapidly–in less than twelve minutes, it is over. A few survivors are rescued among the wreckage and taken to Wales. Among them, Spafford’s wife. She cables her husband with a brief, yet haunting message: “Saved alone.”

Spafford leaves immediately for Europe to join his grieving wife. In addition to the loss of their fortune and the devastation of their home town, they are now bereft of all four of their daughters.

It is said that Spafford penned the words to “It Is Well” aboard the ship that carried him to Europe, as it passed near the place where his daughters had drowned. Whether that is true, or it was instead written later, its message is nonetheless striking–and the fact that Spafford was able to say “it is well with my soul” after everything he had suffered, is as sure an example of God’s grace as any I can think of.

Mr. and Mrs. Spafford were reunited, and were blessed with three more children–one boy and two girls–as well as a time of peace and happiness. But there was still one more tragedy left to strike…

Their son, Horatio II, caught scarlet fever as a toddler. Eventually, he succumbed and died, and the Spaffords were left to grieve for the loss of their fifth child.

Just like Job, this man was reduced by tragedy and disaster to a place where he had no choice but to either forsake his faith in God, or surrender utterly and completely to His care. How bittersweet and potent the second verse of the hymn must have become to him:

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,

And has shed his own blood for my soul.

horatio_spafford


Tomorrow, we will consider the music composed by Philip Bliss, and how it supports the weighty message of the text. It is my hope that it will deepen your appreciation for this beloved hymn, as it did for me. Until then, God bless. And to my fellow Texans: stay warm!

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One thought on “It Is Well With My Soul, Part 1: Though Trials Should Come

  1. Pingback: It Is Well With My Soul, Part 2: Blest Assurance | The Gathering Fire

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