Hymn Guide: It Is Well

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“It is well” is a hymn of sorrow and faith, written by a father grappling with natural disaster and death.

Horatio Spafford was a Chicago lawyer and friend of evangelist Dwight Moody. In 1873, to visit Moody’s preaching campaign in England, he planned a trip for his family to Europe, and sent his wife Anna and daughters on ahead. But the ship sunk in the passage, and only Anna survived. Their four daughters – Annie (11), Maggie (9), Bessie (5), Tanetta (2) – all died. Anna sent a telegram to Horatio, which began: “Saved alone. What shall I do?”

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Horatio quickly sailed to join his wife. Midway across the Atlantic, the Captain told him that they were near the place where his daughters had sunk. Though grieving, he experienced in this moment a supernatural “peace, like a river” (Isaiah 66:12). In his circumstances, this peace could only be the gift of God, the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

Verse by Verse

During the voyage, Horatio began to compose a hymn, to put words to his experience of peace.

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, it is well, with my soul.

Peace, however, is not the only emotion in this first verse. Alongside peace is a roiling grief, depicted with a contrasting water image of “sorrows like sea billows.” In other words, both peace and pain will intermingle in the Christian response to grief. But in the midst of these contrasting emotions, “whatever [his] lot,” he will rest in the gospel hope that “it is well, with my soul.”

Horatio’s struggle with his grief becomes more plain in reference to “Satan” in the second verse:

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.

As Horatio grappled with the question of why God allowed his daughters to die, he took “assurance” from God’s own experience of death. For God sent his own son Jesus, to “shed his own blood.” Notice that Horatio applies the blood of Christ to his own soul. This theme is then expanded upon in the third verse:

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!

This verse is an expansion of 1 Peter 2:24, that Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree.” Though on first impression it may seem strange to find peace in the punishment of the cross, we can understand it through the lens of substitution. Christ received our punishment so that we might receive his peace. Thus Jesus was “making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).

The final verse looks forward to the end times, when the Lord shall return and reunite with all his people.

And Lord, haste the day when the 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!

Given Horatio’s loss of his daughters, this last verse is a fitting conclusion, a substantial hope in the midst of his loss. In the end the strongest antidote to grief is the the hope of resurrection. Indeed, resurrection is the only reason we can authentically sing, “it is well with my soul.” Though there was no chorus in the original manuscript of the hymn, it is fitting that we have turned this line into its refrain, and repeat Horatio’s central and glorious paradox, of well-being even in the midst of death:

It is well (it is well)
With my soul (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

After the voyage Horatio summarized his Christian hope with these poignant words: “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down in mid-ocean, the water three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs, and there, before very long, shall we be too.”

On Video

The tune for the hymn was composed by Philip Bliss, and titled Ville du Havre, after the sunken ship. Two performances are included below. The first is sung by the Oasis Chorale, an American Mennonite choir, without instrumental accompaniment. The second is a gospel version sung by Mahalia Jackson, with accompanying organ, piano, and strings.

Published on

September 28, 2022

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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