It is Well with my Soul

It is Well with my Soul

A few years ago, our church family (Howick Baptist Church) embarked on a project of memorising ten hymns. Why on earth would a twenty-first century church bother to commit obscure words like, “bulwark,” “Ebenezer,” and “quickening ray” to memory? Well for a start, in a world where new is better (and even what’s new becomes obsolete pretty quickly), these hymns remind us that the Christian faith wasn’t invented yesterday and that there is much to learn from those who have gone before us. Here’s a feeble attempt at drawing out, as one pastor put it, the “stubborn and illogical love of Jesus”1 which inspired men and women to write these hymns and keeps us singing them today.

“Saved alone”

These were the first two words that Anna Spafford telegrammed her husband, Horatio, after the ship that she and her four daughters were on sank in a shipwreck that claimed 232 lives – including their four daughters. In the small hours of November 22nd 1873, the transatlantic steamer Ville du Havre collided with another iron sailing vessel. Passengers tumbled and fell. There was darkness and confusion. Within two hours, the entire ship had perished beneath the waves.2

As a grief-stricken Horatio sailed across the Atlantic to reunite with his wife in Europe, the ship’s captain called him aside and informed him that they were now passing over the place where the Ville du Havre went down. Overcome with grief, Horatio retired to his cabin and poured out the words which have become one of the church’s most beloved hymns, “It is Well with my Soul.”3

The story behind this hymn is retold over and over again by preachers and hymn enthusiasts as an example of firm faith in God during difficult times.

Let’s take a closer look at this hymn.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Refrain:
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, 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!

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.

The first verse introduces the idea that, in peace or in sorrow, the Lord helps the believer to say, “It is well with my soul.” In the following verses, Horatio meditates on three “blest assurances” that we can cling to in our darkest moments: Jesus also suffered for us (verse 2), Jesus died for us (verse 3), and Jesus will, one day, return for us (final verse).

Out of all religions and worldviews, Christianity alone declares that God lost his beloved Son in a horrific tragedy. The lyrics to “It is Well” repeatedly display this suffering Saviour as the surest basis for our assurance and hope. For those of us broken and downcast in our own tragedies, Horatio’s words help us to express our faith amid the reality of following Jesus in a broken and fallen world. Even as we experience tragedy and heartbreak in a world “groaning” in pain, the Christian hope assures us that all the pain and sorrow will one day cease. As we pour out our hearts in sorrow, we do so to a God who is faithful and brings fresh comfort and mercy each day.

While Horatio Spafford is held up as a shining example of trust in God’s sovereignty, it would be naive to gloss over some of the more controversial aspects of his life. Following the events that led to his writing “It is Well” he eventually came to deny the existence of hell, affirmed universalism, became obsessed with end-times prophecy, and was convinced of the need to establish a colony in Jerusalem to await Christ’s return. (4) Nevertheless, God has used his song to encourage hundreds of thousands of Christians in the midst of suffering. Because God gave up his Son at the cross, we are saved, and never alone.

Here are some ideas to help you reflect further, either personally or with your church family:

  • Ask yourself: if a terrible tragedy should occur in your life tomorrow, then what “blest assurance [would] control” (i.e. what truths would provide assurance and hope)? Is it that Jesus suffered and died for you?
  • Read how the Apostle Paul offers encouraging words to grieving Christians in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, which includes some familiar words: “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first(1 Thessalonians 4:16).
  • Go through your worship music collection and note which songs could especially help you (or a loved one) express the hope of the gospel in difficult circumstances.
  • Look through all six verses of “It is Well” and list some reasons why that verse might be a comfort to someone going through a difficult situation.
  • Read through some of the psalms of lament (e.g. Psalm 13, Psalm 42, Psalm 73 and Psalm 88). Note the similarities and differences in how each songwriter responds amid difficulty, and compare them to “It is Well”.

 Story: William Chong

William is a member of Howick Baptist Church, currently studying an MDiv
at Sydney Missionary Bible College.

1. Dale Campbell, “Good old church songs iii,” Assorted Music, 2012, dalecampbell.bandcamp.com/ album/good-old-church-songs-iii
2. Robert Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories (Canada: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 185
3. Ibid.
4. Kate Uttinger, “The Shipwreck of the American Colony,” Leben 10 (2014): 6

Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible,
copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: Amie/Lightstock.com

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