The History behind the Hymn ‘It is Well with my Soul’

The writer of the famous hymn It is well with my soul was Horatio Spaford, who was a very successful businessman in Chicago in the 19th century.  Spaford was a strong Christian, who actively supported of the well-known evangelist of that day, D. L. Moody, whose headquarters were in Chicago. 

Spaford suffered many tragedies in his life. His first grief came with the death of his only son.  Then shortly afterwards, in 1871, Chicago was swept with a fire which destroyed a large part of the city and completely wiped out all the properties which he owned.  Two years later, in 1873, Moody set out for the British Isles to conduct their evangelistic meetings, and Spafford agreed to travel with them as an assistant.  He arranged for his wife and four daughters to accompany him in November of that year and made the necessary arrangements.  However, just at the last minute there were serious developments in his business in Chicago which meant that he had to remain behind planning to follow them in a few days. 

Mrs. Spafford and her daughters excitedly boarded the SS Ville Du Havre unaware of the tragedy that was to befall them on the twenty-second day of the month when a British ship, the Lochearn, collided with their ship and within twelve minutes it sank completely.  The survivors were taken to Cardiff but only Horatio’s wife could be found among them.  Later it was discovered that all their daughters had drowned when the ship sank, and Mrs. Spafford had the difficult task of breaking the sad news to her husband. 

She cabled him the sad news in two words, “Saved alone.”  Horatio immediately set sail for Britain to join his wife and it is said that as his ship passed over the spot where his daughters had been drowned, his thoughts were of his sorrows like “the sea billows”, and he was moved to write the verse:

When Peace, like a river , attendeth my way,

When Sorrows like sea-billows roll;

Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Although the background to the hymn is one of sadness, the words of the writer are not morbid or self-pitying, but full of hope.  They express the biblical truth that even when life is hard, we always have an eternal hope. According to John 16:33, Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

How powerful are the words of Jesus. In this world we will have trouble & hardships (some mysteriously more than others). But, Jesus said, “in me you may have peace.” He offers us peace. He is the Prince of Peace. And no matter what trouble we have, we can always take comfort knowing that in Christ we have an eternal home.

To listen to a beautiful version of the hymn, recorded by Selah, click below

Categories Devotionals | Tags: | Posted on September 3, 2021

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