44 It is Well With My Soul
Author-Horatio G. Spafford, 1828-1888
Music-Philip P. Bliss, 1838-1876
Meter-11 8 11 9 with Chorus
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1
This beloved gospel song was written by a Chicago Presbyterian layman, Horatio G. Spafford, born in North Troy, New York, on October 20, 1828. As a young man Spafford had established a most successful legal practice in Chicago. Despite his financial success, he always maintained a keen interest in Christian activities. He enjoyed a close and active relationship with D. L. Moody and the other evangelical leaders of that era. He was described by George Stebbins, a noted gospel musician, as a “man of unusual intelligence and refinement, deeply spiritual, and a devoted student of the Scriptures.”
Some months prior to the Chicago Fire of 1871, Spafford had invested heavily in real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan, and his holdings were wiped out by this disaster. Just before this he had experienced the death of his son. Desiring a rest for his wife and four daughters as well as wishing to join and assist Moody and Sankey in one of their campaigns in Great Britain, Spafford planned a European trip for his family in 1873. In November of that year, due to unexpected last minute business developments, he had to remain in Chicago; but he sent his wife and four daughters on ahead as scheduled on the S.S. Ville du Havre. He expected to follow in a few days. On November 22 the ship was struck by the Lochearn, an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, “Saved alone.” Shortly afterward Spafford left by ship to join his bereaved wife. It is speculated that on the sea near the area where it was thought his four daughters had drowned, Spafford penned this text with words so significantly describing his own personal grief-“When sorrows like sea billows roll...” It is noteworthy, however, that Spafford does not dwell on the theme of life’s sorrows and trials but focuses attention in the third stanza on the redemptive work of Christ and in the fourth verse anticipates His glorious second coming. Humanly speaking, it is amazing that one could experience such personal tragedies and sorrows as did Horatio Spafford and still be able to say with such convincing clarity, “It is well with my soul.”
In his late life Spafford experienced a mental disturbance which prompted him to go to Jerusalem under the strange delusion that he was the second Messiah. He died there in 1888 at the age of sixty.
Philip P. Bliss was so impressed with the experience and expression of Spafford’s text that he shortly wrote the music for it, first published in one of the Sankey-Bliss Hymnals, Gospel Hymns No. Two, in 1876. Bliss was a prolific writer of gospel songs throughout his brief lifetime. In most cases he wrote both the words and music for his hymns. His songs, like most early gospel hymnody, are strong in emotional appeal with tunes that are easily learned and sung (see No. 46).
Other hymns by Philip P. Bliss include “Hold the Fort” (No. 30), “I Gave My Life for Thee” (No. 34), “Jesus Loves Even Me” (No. 46), “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” (101 More Hymn Stories, No. 55), and “Once for All” (ibid., No. 72).