I normally don’t comment too much on a hymn before I give my readers a chance to read it first, but I wanted to share a couple of things about this particular one. God has used this song in my struggles as a human being and as a Christian. I started off very well as someone who became a Christian at age 17 and lived to be taught in life and doctrine from the cream of living theologians. Got well educated, lived faithfully as a young Christian true to the call I received when I first trusted the Lord. Found good employment that my fellow colleagues could only envy. Got married and thought was settled and could chew the cud. Alas the devil had one hidden shock to test and try me. He is sprawling around looking for one to devour. Surely our paths met leaving me with an indelible mark of signs of battle with the evil one. I have since known loss of friends, wealth and all good books with the who and who of Christendom on earth. This made me identify with the hymn writer. I see many similarities as I read through this song. First of all, as a kid growing up in Southern Zambia in a missionary boarding secondary school, this was one of my least favourite hymns. This is the kind of song that can be played really, really slow, and it seems to drag on forever. And if the worship leader is not conscious, this song can be difficult to sing and boring. Then I read about the writer of this song, and it really changed my view. I now sing it more enthusiastically than I ever did. In the end, I thank God for my life and my wonderful and beautiful family. Here is the rest of the background to this hymn.
This hymn was written after several traumatic events in Spafford’s life. The first was the death of his only son in 1871 at the age of four; shortly followed by the Great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially (he had been a successful lawyer). Then in 1873, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family on the ship called SS Ville du Havre, but sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with a sea vessel, the Loch Earn, and all four of Spafford’s daughters died. His wife Anna survived and sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone . . .” Shortly afterwards, as Spafford travelled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died. Bliss called his original tune Ville du Havre, from the name of the stricken vessel.
The Spaffords later had three more children, one of whom (a son) died in infancy. In 1881 the Spaffords, including baby Bertha and newborn Grace, set sail for Israel. The Spaffords moved to Jerusalem and helped found a group called the American Colony; its mission was to serve the poor. The colony later became the subject of the Nobel Prize winning Jerusalem, by Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlof.
Spafford wrote the words to this hymn as a result of that experience. As you read the first verse to “It is well with my soul”, remember where he was and what he experienced personally in his life. Note also that although the original manuscript reads “know” at the end of the third line, almost all recordings and written reproductions read “say”. You can substitute the word say for know if you will.
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.
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 has 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 the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
And Lord, haste the day when my 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.
There are two great lines in this hymn that are appropriate for us to concentrate on. In the second verse, the writer is reminding us that in this life, we as Christians will experience trials and sometimes feel that the devil is winning. However, he reminds us that our thoughts ought to be controlled by these truths – (1) Christ is concerned about us, (2) He knows that we are “helpless” and cares about our situation (3) and that He “hath shed His own blood for my soul.” These words should encourage us and remind us that we serve one who has experienced trials and temptations, has endured far greater hurt, pain, and ridicule that we will ever have to endure. Hebrews 4:15 says “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
The third verse is very powerful also. It means a lot to my soul. The writer has to pause in the middle of the verse and tells us what a glorious thought this is. Our sin, not part of it, but all of it, is nailed to the Cross, and we bear it no more. Name the sin and how great it is. It is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more. No wonder he just burst out in Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord all my soul. What a glorious thought that truly is. God didn’t forgive part of our sin. It is sometimes easy for us to forgive someone of little things (white lies, being snubbed, or gossiped about), but He forgave the big ones too. Although it is not easy to admit, there are probably sins that we would have a hard time forgiving people for. We put certain “degrees” on sin, and whether we intentionally do this or not, we forgive in part. This song reminds us that God is different – He has forgiven all of our sin, and because of that truth, we ought to practice forgiveness in our daily walk.
As I close, take note also that this was a funeral song for Spafford. He does not concentrate on the tragedy that has befallen him. But his mind goes to Christ and that is what matters most. The peace that comes from God when adversity comes. The peace of knowing sin has been forgiven is greater by far than anything else on earth. Look at this great practical Scripture from Ephesians 4:32 “And be ye kind one to another, tender hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” On the cross over two thousand years ago, forgiveness was on His mind. The forgiveness of the thief hanging next to Him, the forgiveness of the one’s who put Him on the Cross, and our forgiveness as well. Let forgiveness be a part of your daily walk and it will be “well with your soul.”