There’s hardly any Christian who wouldn’t include the hymn, It is Well With My Soul, in their list of all-time favourite hymns.
That’s probably because it is one of the most assuring songs believers who are passing through fire and the test of faith can readily connect to. It is no wonder, seeing the man who penned the hymn also did so while deeply hurting, having passed through fire.
Four major setbacks in barely 3 years, and Horatio Gates Spafford, prominent American lawyer and Presbyterian Church layman couldn’t hold back the hymn.
It all started with the loss of his toddler.
Death of Son
In the 1800s, Chicagoans were plagued by sporadic outbreaks of disease including cholera, scarlet fever, whooping cough and tuberculosis. And early in the year in 1871, Spafford lost his innocent 4-year old son to Scarlet fever; leaving him with four daughters.
The Chicago Fire
Later in the year, between October 8-10, America witnessed one of its worst infernos. What is known as the Great Chicago Fire ravaged an area roughly 9km square, destroying 17,500 buildings, killing 300 people and rendering over 100, 000 homeless.
This tragedy consumed Spafford’s fortune overnight, leaving him in financial ruins. He had been a thriving lawyer who had invested heavily in property in that area of Chicago that was devastated by the fire.
As if that was not enough, barely two years later, Spafford’s business interests suffered a further setback following the economic depression that hit North America and Europe in 1873.
Death of Four Daughters
Later in November that year, the worst of tragedies befell him.
Spafford planned a trip to Europe with his family for vacation purposes and a desire to join and assist his friends, famous evangelist D. L. Moody and singer Ira D. Sankey in one of their evangelistic campaigns in Britain.
However, a late change of plan owing to last-minute business developments concerning zoning problems following the Great Chicago Fire meant he had to remain in Chicago. So he sent the family ahead as scheduled on the SS Ville du Havre.
While crossing the Atlantic Ocean, the ship had a collision with an English vessel, the Loch Earn, and sank in twelve minutes.
Spafford lost his four daughters.
His wife Anna survived and upon landing at Cardiff with other survivors, she sent him the now famous telegram, “Saved alone”.
In spite all these, Spafford kept his devotion and like Job didn’t curse God.
Penning the Hymn
Swiftly, Spafford left to meet his grieving wife.
Now childless, he was inspired to write the words of the hymn as his ship passed the area of the ocean believed to be where his daughters had sunk.
Thereafter, Philip Bliss composed the tune for the hymn and called it Ville du Havre, after the name of the stricken vessel.
Moral and Legacy
Although Spafford would later experience restoration with children and fortune, he had no idea when he wrote the words of the hymn, that it will transcend cultural barriers and decades.
And the hymn, alongside his story remains powerful testaments of what the disposition of the believer should be in difficult times.
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 with my soul
It may be tough, but that is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7)
And just as he concluded in the hymn, in the end, faith shall be sight.
Ogaga Eruteya is a Nigerian Christian minister, writer and speaker. He writes on Faith, Personal Development, Youth Development, and Life Realities. With his words, he seeks to inspire, motivate, propagate life’s truths and represent a sincere Christian voice. Learn more about Ogaga here.