It is Well with my Soul

cruise ship

In 1873, an ocean liner on a transatlantic voyage collided with another vessel and sank within minutes claiming the lives of 226 people. Among the passengers were Mrs. Anna Spafford and her four young daughters. When the ship went down, Mrs. Spafford survived but her four daughters perished. She sent a telegram to her husband in Chicago, with these words, “saved alone”. Horatio Spafford took another ship to meet his grieving wife. Somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the captain called Horatio to the bridge and indicated that this was the location where the ill-fated ship had gone down. That night he penned these words, which later became a beloved hymn:

“When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrow like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Horatio had just lost 4 precious daughters, to an accident, what might have seemed a cruel twist of fate. By any measure, this would have been life’s greatest heartache. How could he say, “It is well with my soul?” He described his sorrow like sea billows rolling, waves rising and crashing down. He was no-doubt deeply grief-stricken.

He carefully chose the words, “Thou hast taught me to say…” Somewhere in his journey with Christ he had learned this from God, and when he was tested in the deep raging waters of sorrow, he knew where to could find rest.

This was, in fact, not his first test. Three years earlier, (1870) his only son had died of scarlet fever at the age of four. A year after that, (1871) he lost much of his financial empire in the great Chicago fire. Three tragedies in four years, more than most of us could bear. If ever a man had cause to be weary it was Horatio Spafford.

Yet he wrote from his heart, “It is well with my soul” because in that moment, he completely trusted God’s sovereignty, and submitted to God’s will.

But what happened when he got home and there were four empty beds and only two places at the dinner table, when once there were seven? He would have to run back to Jesus, over and over, again and again.

We find something insightful when we read all of the stanzas of this hymn—an ingredient for a soul at rest—a grateful heart.

Gratefulness comes from remembering what God has done for you. One of the great sins of Israel was forgetting what God had done for them. We’re all forgetful people and this can cause us to grow weary.

In the 2nd stanza Horatio recalls what God has done for him in the past.
In the 3rd stanza he is praising God for the present.
And in the 4th stanza he looks to what God will do for him in the future.

“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come
Let this blessed assurance control
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin, not in part but in 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.”

Being grateful for what God had done in the past and what he would do in the future, were part of the reason for his well-being in the present.

Count your blessings often, and be grateful.
“Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Psalm 116:7

18 comments to It is Well with my Soul

  • Richie

    That hymn and the story behind it are so powerful. It’s one of my all time favorites and reminds me that Jesus is my portion, no matter what.

    • Hi Richie, God uses the trials of other people to comfort us in our own. 2 Cor 1:4. And he uses our trials to comfort others. Some days we wish that were not necessary, but he is a wise God and we can trust him.

  • Carmen Cole

    Oh Janet, this was rich, very rich in guiding us through life’s trials. It spoke to my soul.

  • Mary Woodruff

    Thank you Janet for taking the time to break down this hymn for us in such a teachable way. Your words fed my soul this morning and I am grateful for you and the path the Lord has you on!

    • Good morning to you Mary. It is amazing how one man’s horrendous trial has inspired so many of us in our trials. That’s a lesson for us to share our struggles and the comfort God gives us. 2Cor1:4. You never know how our life will affect others.

  • Shan

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful hymn, Janet. Often we’re reluctant to share our heartbreaks with others but we need to because it encourages others to know that they are not alone. It honors God when we are able to say, like Job, in our sorrow and loss, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21b

    • Yes Shan, we can honor God in our sorrows. I need to remember that even today in my piddly problems. Honor God. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Patty

    Janet this is my favorite hymn. The story is so powerful. How God has used this man’s grief to express such faith is such a gift to believers. The words are humanly impossible to understand. It is evidence of God’s sustaining grace.

  • Natalie

    This is one of my favorite blogs you’ve ever done. (And that is saying a lot!) I will press on during my trials and pray that my heart will say it is well!

  • Chérie

    This is a story I have read before and have used to encourage others, however I have never read it in the way Janet —”Little Missy anointed writer” has written it—breaking it down and crawling into the story to examine the feelings of complete and utter loss, sorrow, and emotional pain Horatio Spafford had to have felt and CONTINUED TO FEEL the rest of his earthly life.
    Janet wrote:

    “Three tragedies in four years, more than most of us could bear. If ever a man had cause to be weary it was Horatio Spafford. Yet he wrote from his heart, ‘It is well with my soul’ because in that moment, he completely trusted God’s sovereignty, and submitted to God’s will.”

    My lightening bolt thought was of how many millions upon millions of believers have stood during worship, and sung these words and meant what they sang from the depths of their souls (or tried as best as they could) —these words Horatio Spafford penned during a tragedy we think should never happen to any human and one we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy.

    God was GLORIFIED
    —and has been all those millions of times.

    I struggle daily (hourly?) with anger at my adopted son who has Reactive Attachment Disorder from being drug exposed as a preborn, and severely neglected as in infant. TRUST and SUBMISSION are exactly what these children cannot do. They have to go through years of therapy to re-wire their brain to be able to trust their authority rather than themselves. Having a child that will not trust you and will not —under any circumstance submit to what you know is right for them is like being emotionally clawed to death. I can’t even begin to explain it. It’s something you can’t fathom unless you are a RAD parent.

    Yet look what happened when the great Horatio Spafford trusted and submitted to his all-knowing, all mighty Father, creator of Heaven and Earth.

    Holy Stinking Cow.

    Holy. Stinking. Cow.

    • Cherie, there are so many lessons in this beloved hymn. I’m so glad you found one for your situation. Press on dear friend, we need you in the fight.

  • Lynette Nobles

    I am still slogging through Haggai – ugh. But it is teaching me so much about putting God’s work first, choosing Him over me! I peeked into Zechariah the other day and found that he was prophesying at the same time and after Haggai. After skimming the book I found that Zechariah (not surprisingly!) says very similar things. Motivating!

    • Hi Lynette, Don’t be discouraged that Haggai is taking longer than you hoped. I finished about a week ago and I’ve been going through it every day so I don’t lose it. I will probably do this for at least another month, review every day, meanwhile seeing new things. That’s true what you said about Zechariah. They are both post-exilic prophets.

  • Susa M.

    Thank you. I needed this!