Horatio Spafford was a Christian businessman and investor who lived in Chicago in the 1870s. Prior to writing this hymn, Spafford suffered several seasons of great loss, grief, and deep darkness.
The first tragedy to strike his family was the loss of his two-year-old son, which in its own right, would have been enough to break a man. Right on the heels of this loss, and in the midst of great grief, Spafford suffered another blow as his home city was ravaged by the Great Chicago Fire. This not only caused great social and economic chaos, but it personally destroyed Spafford financially; he had invested nearly all of his wealth into Chicago real estate and development.
In an effort to find rest and reprieve, and perhaps to collect his thoughts, Spafford planned a summer trip for his family to Europe. Maybe this would provide a change of scenery and a time of healing. At the last minute, however, Spafford was unable to board the vessel SS Ville du Havre with his wife, Anna, and their four daughters. He was needed stateside for a business matter, so he sent his family ahead with the intention to join them soon.
As Spafford was working to salvage the wreckage that was his business, he received word of nearly unspeakable tragedy: SS Ville du Havre had shipwrecked. On November 21, 1873, the liner was rammed amid ship by a British vessel and sank within minutes. Anna was picked up unconscious on a floating spar, but the four children had drowned. Apparently, when Spafford did finally receive notice of the events, it was accompanied by a two-word telegram from Anna which read, “Saved alone…”
Saved alone. Saved alone. Saved alone.
I imagine these words must’ve run through Spafford’s mind thousands of times as he beat his breast and poured out his soul, weeping before God. How could this be? How could this possibly be? God, where were you? Why God, why?
As Spafford crossed the Atlantic, heading to console and grieve with his beloved Anna, he began to write, fervently pouring out his heart to God. Many think he took pen to page near the spot where the ship’s passengers breathed their last.
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’s hard to learn of Spafford’s story and to encounter his hymn, his prayers, his cries before the Most High, and not be utterly moved.
Christ promised that in this world we would suffer (John 16:33). Some of us may look at Spafford’s story and pray that we never encounter such a shipwreck. Others among us feel they already have. Some are experiencing peace, some great turmoil like the rolling waves of a storm-swept sea. The marvelous mystery of the gospel is wrapped up in a spirit that is able to praise God in the midst of all circumstances. It’s here that Spafford humbly and beautifully leads the way.
We serve a God who is able to walk on water and calm the waves—but He can also lead us through the storm (Matthew 14:22–23; 8:23–27). Whatever our lot, whatever our challenge or trial or resistance, when we pray “it is well,” we don’t brush away the pain or despair, but we do plant our feet firmly on the Rock that is steady and with us in the storm and suffering. “It is well” is not a glib smile or a trite phrase. It’s the knowledge that Jesus, who wept for the loss of His friend, also weeps with us in our loss (John 11:35), ministering to us from His personal experience with great suffering.
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river… as one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:12-13a).
Written by Andrew Stoddard
It Is Well With My Soul
Horatio G. Spafford, 1873
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 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 has 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 the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain
O 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. Refrain