Posted by: rcottrill | February 23, 2011

It Is Well with My Soul

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)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

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?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Thanks for this post – it struck a chord with me very recently as this was the tune played from the organ as we exited the church after my Dad’s funeral. He died on 16th February but I praise the Lord that Dad knew Him as Saviour and Lifelong Friend – this is a great comfort to me.

    • Thanks for sharing. Spafford’s hymn is one of my favourites. In spite of life’s trials, it is comforting to be able to say that, by the grace of God, and, and because of salvation in Chris, it is well with my soul!

  2. I would like to know where your sources are to be found for stating that Horatio Spafford developed a mental illness. I have found no reliable sources and his family denies it as well.

    • Thanks for your question. It’s always tricky digging up the details of events from 150 years and more ago. I do my best to get multiple sources for information and, when I can, I actually contact people involved–or those who knew them–and check my facts.

      In the case of Mr. Spafford’s mental illness, I note that Kenneth Osbeck, whom I’ve found usually quite reliable, talks about it in his book Singing with Understanding (Kregel, 1979). He says:

      “In his late life Spafford experienced a mental disturbance which prompted him to go to Jerusalem under the strange delusion that he was the second Messiah” (p. 161).

      That sounds pretty definite. Osbeck doesn’t even hedge his statement with, “It is alleged,” or “Some have reported,” etc. I’ve seen the same information elsewhere too, though I can’t give you specifics off hand. Perhaps you can get more information by writing to Osbeck’s publisher, Kregel Publications.

      Some of the background for the story of the Spaffords comes from their daughter, Bertha Spafford Vester, in her book Our Jerusalem. But I notice that one reviewer calls her book “extremely biased.” She wasn’t born until 1881, and therefore relied on family reports after the fact. And we must remember that there was (and often still is) a strong stigma against mental illness that can silence family members about it.

      It’s apparently Bertha Vester who propagated the idea that Horatio Spafford wrote the famous hymn while on the ocean voyage to meet his grieving wife, after the tragic death of their four daughters. However, Ira Sankey says the song was written three years later, while he was staying in the Spafford home. There may be an element of truth in both. Perhaps Spafford got the idea for writing a poem about the incident earlier, then did so after a later discussion with Ira Sankey. I tend to favour Sankey’s account. He was there at the time; Bertha was not. Here is the quotation from Sankey’s memoir, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns (p. 169):

      “In 1876, when we returned to Chicago to work, I was entertained at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Spafford for a number of weeks. During that time, Mr. Spafford wrote the hymn, ‘It is well with my soul,’ in commemoration of the death of his children.”

      I include this latter discrepancy to illustrate how even people closely involved in events may be uncertain, or differ, about the details. If reports of Mr. Spafford’s mental illness are true, it does nothing to change my estimation of him. His courage, and his commitment to Christ are exemplary. His hymn continues to bless multitudes. I look forward to meeting him in Glory.

  3. If I recall correctly, the music was the last published writing of Philip Bliss before his tragic death in Ohio.

    • Nope, sorry. The hymn that was found in the Blisses’ trunk, after they both perished in a train accident was “I Will Sing of My Redeemer.” The hymn “It Is Well” was written by Horatio Spafford, under quite different circumstances.

  4. Reblogged this on The Shepherd's Presence and commented:
    I find that this gentleman researches carefully the hymn stories for his blog. This grand hymn of the faith story should be known and here it is!


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