Words: Horatio Gates Spafford (b. Oct. 20, 1828; d. Oct. 16, 1888)
Music: Ville du Havre, by Philip Paul Bliss (b. July 9, 1838; d. Dec. 29, 1876)
The tune for this wonderful hymn was named after the S. S. Ville du Havre, the ship on which the Spaffords’ four daughters were to die so tragically, when the vessel struck another in mid-Atlantic in the dark, and went down. Horatio Spafford had remained in Chicago, taking care of some business. He planned to join his family later, in England. The great Chicago fire had destroyed most of the buildings in the city, and even two years later, many of the schools had yet to be rebuilt. The Spaffords hoped to enroll their daughters in an English academy for a time.
Instead, the terrible wreck changed their lives forever. Anna Spafford experienced the horror of seeing her children swept overboard and drowned. Then a falling mast of the ship struck her, knocking her unconscious. She was found later, clinging to a piece of wreckage, barely alive. Mr. Spafford made hurried arrangements to join his wife, and evangelist Dwight L. Moody, a close friend, met them in London. (Through the ministry of Moody the four girls had put their trust in the Saviour.) The faith of the grieving couple was undimmed by the accident. They said to Mr. Moody, “It is well. The will of God be done.” (“It is well” is a statement found in Scripture three times, under greatly differing circumstances: I Sam. 20:7; I Kgs. 18:24; II Kgs. 4:26).
“As a father pities his children, So the LORD pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14). “Let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator” (I Pet. 4:19; cf. Rom. 8:28). “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Ps. 46:1, NLT). With David the Spaffords could testify, “When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then You knew my path….My times are in Your hand” (Ps. 142:3; 31:15).
Believing in the soon return of Christ, the Spaffords closed up their business interests in the United States and moved to the Holy Land in 1881. They established a cooperative missionary rest home there called The American Colony. It is now The American Colony Hotel, and is considered an island of peace and neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The hotel is still owned by descendants of the Spaffords. In later years, Horatio Spafford developed a serious mental disorder, and came to believe he was some kind of second Messiah! He died of malaria, in Jerusalem, and he is buried there.
Some have contended that the hymn It Is Well with My Soul was written by Mr. Spafford during the sea voyage when he went to join his wife, immediately after the tragedy. Indeed, he may have had the inspiration for it then. But Ira Sankey states that it was written three years afterward, while Sankey was a guest in the Spaffords’ home. Other interesting details of the story are found on the Wordwise Hymns link above.
The way in which this hymn came to be written is better known than most. Like so many of our sacred songs, it was born out of a time of great trial, and the author’s abiding faith that, whatever the Lord allowed to touch his life, He knew best. Though tragedy may have prompted the writing of these lines, that is certainly not the focus. After mentioning that sometimes “sorrows like sea billows roll” (CH-1), the writer moves swiftly to the assurance of eternal salvation that should be found in the heart of every Christian.
As a sinner, I am “helpless” to save myself. But “Christ…has shed His own blood for my soul” (CH-2). By faith, I realize that all my sin “is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more. Praise the Lord!” (CH-3). Now, believers look forward to the soon return of Christ. “The sky, not the grave, is our goal” (CH-5). (Great line, that!) The Apostle Paul reminds us that today “we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5:7). We rest in the promises of God, as we await Christ’s coming. But with Horatio Spafford we pray, “Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight” (CH-6).
1) How would you answer someone who said the person who claims, “It is well” in the midst of terrible tragedy is either kidding himself, or is heartless and unfeeling?
2) How will we live differently if we are truly convinced “the sky, not the grave, is our goal?