Story of Hymn: It Is Well With My Soul


“It Is Well With My Soul” is a hymn written by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, Presbyterian church elder and hymnist


“It Is Well With My Soul” is a hymn written by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, Presbyterian church elder and hymnist, following the tragic events in his life. The Hymn was first published in Gospel Songs No. 2 by Ira Sankey and Bliss (1876), it is possibly the most influential and enduring in the Bliss repertoire and is often taken as a choral model, appearing in hymnals of a wide variety of Christian fellowships.

This incredible story behind this hymn of faith belongs to a Presbyterian layman from Chicago, Horatio Spafford (1828-1888). Much like Job, he placed his trust in God during his life’s prosperity, but also during its calamities. A devout Christian who’d immersed himself in Scripture, many years of his life were joyous.
Horatio Gates Spafford was a prominent Chicago lawyer, who’s business was thriving. He owned several properties throughout the city and invested heavily in real estate along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. He and his beloved wife had four beautiful daughters and one son. Life was more than good, it was blessed.

Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 destroyed nearly every real estate investment Horatio owned and this ruined him financially.


But faith, no matter how great, does not spare us from adversity. Just as Horatio hit the pinnacle of his profession and financial success, things began to change. It began with the tragic loss of their son at the age of two. Not long thereafter, and in that same year, the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871 destroyed nearly every real estate investment Horatio owned and this ruined him financially. Tragedy appeared to be his constant companion.

After all his losses, Mr. Spafford decided that his family needed to get away and relax. He arranged a trip to Europe. The family traveled to New York to board the Ville de Havre. At the last minute, Mr. Spafford was called unexpectedly back to Chicago to wrap up some business, but he insisted his family should continue on the trip and he would join them as soon as possible. His wife and four daughters thus sail ahead via the French ocean liner, Ville du Havre, on November 21, 1873. With Anna on her trip were 11-year-old, Tanetta; 9-year-old, Elizabeth; 5-year-old, Margaret Lee; and 2-year-old, Annie.  A nanny and several friends were also reportedly travelling with the women. 

With Anna on her trip were 11-year-old, Tanetta; 9-year-old, Elizabeth; 5-year-old, Margaret Lee; and 2-year-old, Annie.

On November 23, 1873, after the ship departed crossing the Atlantic, the Ville de Havre collided with the Lochearn, an English ship. It was reported that Anna took their daughters to the deck where they knelt and prayed to God for their life to be spared. The ship sank in 12 minutes carrying with it 226 passengers, including Haratio and Anna’s children. Unfortunately, only Anna survived among his family.
The rescue brought Anna to Cardiff, Wales after 9 days. She sent a telegram to her husband saying, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”. (Mr. Spafford later framed the telegram and placed it in his office). She fell into despair until a friend told her that it is easy to be grateful when things are good but that we need to be careful not to be a fair-weather friend to God. Another of the ship’s survivors, Pastor Weiss, later recalled Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”

sent a telegram to her husband saying, “Saved alone, what shall I do?”.

Mr. Spafford booked passage on the next available ship and left to join his grieving wife. With the ship about four days out, the captain called Spafford to his cabin and told him they were over the place where his children went down. It was then that he put his pen to paper and the timeless hymn was born, beginning with the words:

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.

According to Bertha Spafford Vester, a daughter born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey.
Famous hymn composer, Philip Bliss (1838-1876), was so moved and impressed with the sentiment Spafford expressed in the poem, that he quickly composed a peaceful tune to accompany the words and put it into music. He named the tune, Ville du Havre, after the ship on which the Spafford daughter’s died.  He performed the song for the first time on November 24, 1876 at an assembly of ministers hosted by Dwight L. Moody. The song was published in Gospel Songs No. 2 by Bliss and Sankey, in 1876.

Philip Bliss (1838-1876), was so moved and impressed with the sentiment Spafford expressed in the poem, that he quickly composed a peaceful tune to accompany the word

Sadly, more tragedy surrounded the hymn than just with the Spafford family. One month later, on December 29, 1876, Philip Bliss and his wife were traveling by train to Chicago.  The bridge collapsed on the trestle near Ashtabula, Ohio and the passenger coach plunged 75 feet into the icy river. Philip was able to escape through a window, but his wife was pinned in the wreckage. As he went back to free his wife, a fire broke out through the wooden cars and no trace of either body was ever found.  They were both burned beyond recognition. The couple left behind two young sons.
Following what can only have been an emotional reunion, Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago.  In 1876, they were blessed with a son, Horatio Jr, in 1878 a daughter Bertha was born and in 1880, their last child, Grace was born.  Sadly six weeks later, Horatio Jr died at four years of age from scarlet fever. Their church regarded this tragedy as “divine punishment.” After the birth of their youngest daughter, they moved to Jerusalem where they devoted their lives into philanthropic work among the people regardless of their religious affiliation. Because of this, they gained the respect and trust of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities.

Four days before his 60th birthday, Horatio Spafford contracted what the family described as “malaria fever which caused mental confusion” while in Jerusalem. He succumbed to the malaria on October 16, 1888 and was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem. Anna continued her work in Jerusalem until her death in 1923.
Through all of the affliction and pain, Horatio Spafford, was able to say “It is well with my soul.” When faced with trials in life, can you say “It is well with my soul?”

IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL
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.

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.

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!

And, 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:
It is well with my soul,
It is well, it is well with my soul.