This past weekend at church, the wonderfully talented musician Glenn Person was at the piano and performed a soul-stirring rendition of “It is Well with my Soul” as an offertory — one so powerful the congregation applauded when he finished singing.
With our jaded world in turmoil, it seems all too easy to find fault in others and to cynically embrace a negative view of everything that comes along.
I remembered the story of Horatio Spafford, the author of “It is Well,” as Glenn sang.
Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer and businessman in the 1860s. He had invested in real estate along the shores of Lake Michigan and had become a wealthy, respected man with a loving wife, one son and four beautiful daughters. In 1871, he wrote in a letter to a friend he was “sitting on top of the world.”
Within a span of two years, Spafford’s world was shattered by a series of events. His 4-year-old son Horatio Jr. died of scarlet fever. Then Spafford lost his entire fortune when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern in a barn, causing the Great Chicago Fire. All of Spafford’s worldly possessions, save for his college diploma, were in ashes.
His financial downfall seemed to affect his wife the most, and with some of his remaining resources, Spafford arranged for his wife and daughters to accompany evangelist D.L. Moody and others on a ship to England in 1873, hoping the change of scenery would bring his family some peace.
Anna Spafford and the girls boarded the ship Ville du Havre and sailed away, with Horatio planning to join them later after wrapping up some business dealings. Four days into the trans-Atlantic journey, however, Horatio received word the Ville du Havre had collided with the Lock Earn and sunk in 12 minutes, taking the lives of 226 passengers.
When the survivors reached Cardiff, Wales several days later, Horatio received a telegram from Anna with these words:
The grief-stricken Horatio immediately boarded a ship to join his devastated wife in England. While the ship was en route, the captain called Horatio to the bridge and pointed out they were passing over the very waters where the Ville du Havre sank and where his daughters now rested.
Spafford later said a calming peace came over him, as he remembered the words of Chicago pastor and friend D.L. Moody: “One of these days you are going to read that D. L. Moody of East Northfield is dead. Don’t you believe a word of that; I’ll be more alive than I am now.”
Feeling his daughters’ spirits around him, Spafford didn’t cry; he smiled. He ran back to his cabin and began to write the words that were on his heart in those moments.
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
It is well, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
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!
Upon the Spaffords’ return to Chicago, friends and family supported them more than ever. One of these dear friends was a songwriter named Philip Bliss. Bliss had been a music teacher for several years but was drafted to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. In the years following the war, however, he had committed himself to singing and performing around the Midwest.
Spafford shared his poem with Bliss. Deeply moved, Bliss created music to accompany the lyrics and called it “It is Well with my Soul.” Before long, the composition was being performed at Moody’s crusades.
This song has been around for nearly 150 years and still carries with it the message of eternal hope. To hear Glenn Person’s version of it this past weekend just reminded me once more even when life may seem unbearable or when you even wonder if things will get better, there is a peace that only comes from one source.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools and a regular columnist for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.