It is one of the church's most beloved hymns. It is a declaration of trust in the midst of suffering. It is the anthem of believer's who have found themselves facing long, dark nights yet continually hoping in the Lord. The lyrics say, "Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul."
Many know the story behind the hymn, but maybe you have never heard it. As has been written elsewhere, here is the account:
This hymn was written by a Chicago lawyer, Horatio G. Spafford. You might think to write a worship song titled, 'It is well with my soul', you would indeed have to be a rich, successful Chicago lawyer. But the words, "When sorrows like sea billows roll ... It is well with my soul”, were not written during the happiest period of Spafford's life. On the contrary, they came from a man who had suffered almost unimaginable personal tragedy.
Horatio G. Spafford and his wife, Anna, were pretty well-known in 1860’s Chicago. And this was not just because of Horatio's legal career and business endeavors. The Spaffords were also prominent supporters and close friends of D.L. Moody, the famous preacher. In 1870, however, things started to go wrong. The Spaffords' only son was killed by scarlet fever at the age of four. A year later, it was fire rather than fever that struck. Horatio had invested heavily in real estate on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1871, every one of these holdings was wiped out by the great Chicago Fire.
Aware of the toll that these disasters had taken on the family, Horatio decided to take his wife and four daughters on a holiday to England. And, not only did they need the rest -- DL Moody needed the help. He was traveling around Britain on one of his great evangelistic campaigns. Horatio and Anna planned to join Moody in late 1873. And so, the Spaffords traveled to New York in November, from where they were to catch the French steamer 'Ville de Havre' across the Atlantic. Yet just before they set sail, a last-minute business development forced Horatio to delay. Not wanting to ruin the family holiday, Spafford persuaded his family to go as planned. He would follow on later. With this decided, Anna and her four daughters sailed East to Europe while Spafford returned West to Chicago. Just nine days later, Spafford received a telegram from his wife in Wales. It read: "Saved alone."
On November 2nd 1873, the 'Ville de Havre' had collided with 'The Lochearn', an English vessel. It sank in only 12 minutes, claiming the lives of 226 people. Anna Spafford had stood bravely on the deck, with her daughters Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta clinging desperately to her. Her last memory had been of her baby being torn violently from her arms by the force of the waters. Anna was only saved from the fate of her daughters by a plank which floated beneath her unconscious body and propped her up. And she immediately recalled the words of a friend, "It's easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God."
Upon hearing the terrible news, Horatio Spafford boarded the next ship out of New York to join his bereaved wife. Bertha Spafford (the fifth daughter of Horatio and Anna born later) explained that during her father's voyage, the captain of the ship had called him to the bridge. "A careful reckoning has been made", he said, "and I believe we are now passing the place where the de Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep." Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn.
His worship does not solely depend on how he feels. "Whatever my lot", he says, come rain or shine, pleasure or pain, success or failure, "Thou hast taught me to say / It is well, it is well with my soul".
Amazing! The next time you sing this song, sing it knowing that the sorrows like sea billows rolling were threatening to overtake the author. Sing it knowing that others have suffered and persevered. Your pain is real and need not be minimized. Yet, hope in God. His grace is greater still. And may the Lord haste the day when our faith is turned to sight. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.