Horatio Gates Spafford was born to Horatio and Elizabeth Clark Hewitt Spafford in October of 1828. The family lived in New York where his father wrote for the Gazetteer. Spafford was a lawyer, businessman, and an elder at his Presbyterian church. He was also friends with Dwight Moody. He moved to Chicago and, during a Sunday school class, met his future wife, Anna Larssen. Then only fifteen, Larssen was an immigrant from Norway and fourteen years Spafford’s junior. The two were married in 1861 and together they had four daughters. Sadly, much of his business ventures were destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.
In hopes of bringing some relief to his family and to join Moody and Ira Sankey, Spafford decided to take his family to Europe in 1873, but he was kept back and sent his wife and daughters ahead of him. But on the 21st of November, their ship, the S.S. Ville de Havre, was struck by another ship and sank. Days later, his wife sent him the message, “Saved alone.” from Wales. On the way across the Atlantic to get his wife, passing over where his daughters perished, Spafford wrote the lyrics to this well-known hymn. The music was composed by Philip P. Bliss, friend of Spafford, in 1876 and was named after the ship on which the daughters died.
After the loss at sea, Stafford and his wife were either excluded from or left their church, and they began to have meetings in their own home. They had three more children, though their son died in 1880 of scarlet fever, and in 188,1 they moved to Jerusalem. There they started a colony, began a charity organization to all people in the area, and adopted a son. Seven years later, only four days before his 60th birthday, Horatio Spafford died of malaria in Jerusalem on October 16, 1888.
Spafford’s life clearly was not a peaceful journey, and he was not a stranger to sorrow. In spite of this, and during possibly the worst days of his life, he penned a song that has become a comfort to many. “It is Well” is a message to the sorrowful, those walking in this world, those leaning on Christ, that the Savior is our true comfort, our peace, and our hope during all circumstances. This hymn in general restates the things which Scripture teaches us and puts it in the form of praise and thankfulness to God as well as reminding the singer of all that God has done for us. This hymn is a reminder of the comfort and assurance we have in Christ.
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know/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.
In this first stanza, the imagery is two-fold. On one hand, it clearly was written with the death of the hymnist’s daughters in mind. But on the other hand, it is an image of our lives. Some times will be filled with peace and other times with strife and despair (Psa. 1, 22, 138:7, Job). Regardless of our circumstances, we have been taught that Christ is with us and the Holy Spirit dwells within us (Psa. 94:17-19, Phil. 4:5-9). Our peace, joy, and hope come not from our circumstances, nor because of what we do, but they come from Christ and His blessed assurance and grace (2 Cor. 5:7, Isa. 26:3, Matt. 6:25-34).
People often refer to this hymn as either “When Peace Like a River” or “It is Well.” But what is well with what? All is well with my soul. Despite what troubles are in our lives, despite what joy we experience, despite our pain or providence, it is our souls that are well. Why? Because the things of this world do not matter. No matter height or depth, plenty or poverty, we are at peace with Christ (Rom. 5:1-11, 8:30-39). Christ is our hope, our peace, or salvation. None of things, nothing, depends on us or our circumstance (Phil. 4:4-13). Everything depends on Christ and His grace. Therefore, it is well with our souls because we rely on Christ (Psa. 42, 16:9-11).
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.
What shall we face in this world? Our lives will not always be at peace, but we will face hardships (Jam. 1:2-4). Will it only be the loss of material possessions or loss of family that we encounter? No, this world is sin filled and the devil prowls about it, actively looking to destroy us (1 Pet. 5:6-9, Eph. 6:10-13). Despite this hope that we have, we know that Satan will try to strike us down or trick us, causing us to despair. But when we encounter doubt, worry, and pain, we remember that our assurance is not in ourselves. This is the beauty and tension we have in life and in faith. Our life is in God’s hands, and though we face trials, we rely on God for strength, support, and guidance (2 Cor. 1:3-9). We are helpless, body and soul. Thankfully, we did not need to shed our own blood for the salvation of our souls, nor do we stand alone when facing trials (Col. 2:11-15, Rom. 8, Heb. 9:12). It is on Christ we rely.
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!
What a beautiful verse of praise! The image that comes to mind is from Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian gets to the foot of the cross and the burden he has been carrying for so long falls down into the tomb, never to be seen again. This is the glorious thought that reminds us all is well with our souls. How wonderful it is that our sin, our shame and burden, is removed with Christ’s blood! The entirety of our sin, which ends in death, was taken from us (Rom. 8:1-11, Heb. 2:14-15, 9:27-28). The punishment was removed and put on the body of Christ (Rom. 6:23). How glorious it is that it was nailed to the cross and did not remain on our bodies (1 Pet. 2:24, Col. 2:13-14). How praiseworthy is Christ’s sacrifice and redeeming act that made us holy and righteous in God’s sight! (2 Cor. 5:21, Col. 1:19-23, Psa. 146:1-2)
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.
This verse was added at a later date, possibly once Spafford was in Jerusalem, but it continues with the theme of the hymn. If Christ has saved us from our sins, if we rest secure in His death and resurrection, then it matters not what trials come our way (1 Pet. 1:3-7, Psa. 46, 62:5-8). The hymnist echoes Paul asking where is death’s victory and sting if we are living and dying in Christ? (1 Cor. 15:50-58) Christ is sovereign and, whether we are here on earth or with Christ, His peace shall be with us as He is with us (Gal. 2:20, Phil. 1:21-26).
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.
This verse was also added later, and it is unclear when and by whom. But like the other verses, this one also repeats the same theme: Christ has redeemed us and we will dwell forever with Him. Here life may be filled with pain, and death is reality around us. But it matters not if we live or die, because there is only Christ crucified and raised again (Gal. 2:20, 2 Tim. 1:12). Our end is not in death or a grave but in eternal life with Christ (1 Thes. 4:13-18, Psa. 4:8). So while we have peace from God here on earth, we look forward to the day that suffering end and our hope and rest will be realized with the coming of the Lord (Psa. 23:6).
And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night, oh my soul!
As was the hope of the first Christians, we too look forward to the day of the Lord when we shall see that which we hope for (1 Cor. 13:12, 2 Cor. 5:7, Rom. 8:20-26). The imagery in this verse comes from all over Scripture and paints that day we can only imagine (Isa. 34:4, Matt. 24:30-31, 1 Cor. 15:51-54, 1 Thes. 4:16-18, Rev. 6:14). It will be an awesome day, a day that we do not know the date of, a day of which we can be sure. But whether it comes in our day or not is irrelevant. We look forward to that day with hope and patience because we look forward to the restoration of all things, to be with Christ. So until that day comes, and when that day comes, we will sing it is well with our souls. It is in Christ and the hope He has promised us that we have peace and joy (Rom. 15:13). This is why we do not fear the days to come and why we sing “it is well.” Our trust is in Him.
Blessings to you and yours,