History Book: “It Is Well with My Soul” turns 150 | WORLD
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History Book: “It Is Well with My Soul” turns 150


WORLD Radio - History Book: “It Is Well with My Soul” turns 150

The well-known hymn was composed by a hymn writer in whose life all was not well

It is Well with My Soul, first print 1876 Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Ira David Sankey, Philip Paul Bliss: Gospel Hymns No. 2

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, November 20th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next, the WORLD History Book. The story behind a beloved hymn that assures believers wherever tragedy goes, so does the grace of God…even when the hymn writer himself eventually departs from orthodoxy.

Here’s WORLD Radio intern, Emma Perley:

EMMA PERLEY, INTERN: November 21st, 1873 is a chilly day. Anna Spafford and her four daughters gaze over the waters of the Atlantic on board the Ville du Havre, an enormous French ocean liner.

The Spaffords are bound for Paris to attend a rally for close friend and evangelist Dwight L. Moody. But Anna’s husband Horatio stays behind to take care of business. Two years before, the family watched as their property investments turned to ash in the Great Chicago Fire.

Once a prosperous lawyer, Horatio finds himself destitute. Despite the loss, Horatio and his wife Anna hold fast to their deep faith in God. Here’s Pastor David Jeremiah teaching about the Spafford family in a 2016 sermon.

JEREMIAH: All across town, people were wandering homeless and hungry, and the Staffords were deeply involved in doing what they could do to help families in distress.

Anna and their daughters —Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta—are excited for the trip to Paris…away from their struggles. But at around 2 a.m. on the morning of November 22nd, the girls are jolted awake by a thunderous noise.

An English ship, the Loch Earn, rams into the Ville du Havre without warning. Panicked passengers clamber into lifeboats while the masts crash to the deck.

Anna clutches two year old Tanetta, and Annie looks up at her mother. She says, “Don’t be afraid. The sea is His and He made it.” The ship splits in two, and the girls are thrown into an icy whirlpool.

JEREMIAH: Their ship sunk within 20 minutes. Only 47 people were rescued from the ship. Anna was pulled from the water unconscious, she'd been found floating on a piece of debris.

Back in Chicago, Horatio waits for a letter from his family with growing dread. Finally, on December 1st, he receives a message from Anna.

JEREMIAH: Saved alone. What should I do?

Horatio immediately sets sail to join Anna in Paris. As his ship passes over the very spot where Ville du Havre sank, he looks out over the calm ocean waves with tears in his eyes. Audio here from voice actor Kim Rasmussen.

RASMUSSEN AS HORATIO SPAFFORD: When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well. It is well with my soul.

Horatio sends these words back to friend and composer Philip Bliss in Chicago. And Bliss composes a hymn to the lyrics, naming the tune, Ville du Havre in remembrance. It becomes Bliss’s most popular and influential hymn, even 150 years later.


That’s where most retellings of this story end. But there’s more.

Horatio and Anna return to Chicago and begin a women’s ministry under Moody’s direction. Anna has two more children, Bertha and Horatio. But in February of 1881, both catch scarlet fever. Little Horatio dies of the illness at four years old. Here’s pastor David Jeremiah once again:

JEREMIAH: Inexplicably, the family's church took the view that these tragedies were surely the punishment of a wrathful God upon this family for some unspecified sin that they had apparently committed.

The Spaffords begin holding charismatic prayer meetings in their home. And they claim to have powers allowing them to heal sick members and even resurrect the dead. Eventually, their church asks the Spaffords to leave. So Horatio and Anna pack their bags.

JEREMIAH: In 1881, they decided that they would leave America and begin a new life in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, they establish a settlement with other families, calling themselves the Overcomers. They claim that they are waiting for Jesus’s second coming, and he will return in seven years.

RASMUSSEN AS HORATIO SPAFFORD: And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll…

Horatio adds a fourth verse to his hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. While it still echoes scripture, it has a different meaning for the Overcomers.

RASMUSSEN AS HORATIO SPAFFORD: …“Even so—it is well with my soul.”

Horatio becomes more spiritualistic and unorthodox in Jerusalem. He denies that there will be eternal punishment for sinners—insisting that God will save everyone, even Satan. And he preaches that churches are institutions of sin. Here’s an excerpt from one of his sermons:

RASMUSSEN AS SPAFFORD: God has showed us that “the Church” in all its parts is destitute of spiritual power. Theirs are false teachings. God has chosen the Overcomers instead of the organized church as the new “holy and peculiar people” to be “the Bride made one with Him and one another.”

Later, Horatio is bedridden with malaria. Some scholars attribute his unorthodox proclamations to a side effect caused by malaria medication. In 1888, Horatio falls into a coma. And soon dies. In WORLD commentator Janie Cheaney’s 2019 column, It is well .., she writes that while all was not well with the Spafford family, Cheaney maintains that the hymn is still an edifying song for believers today.

JANIE B CHEANEY: We can’t know for certain the final state of Horatio Spafford’s soul, but we can know the effect of his words. Like any work of art, they became a tool in God’s hand, to confirm truth or deny it. His sheep hear His voice, however it reaches them. For that, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”


That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Emma Perley.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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