I took a music course in college, in which one of the projects was to report on a hymn, its author and any special circumstances influencing its writing. My assignment was “Rock of Ages”, by Augustus Toplady. I discovered that Toplady was a British clergyman who, being caught in a storm. found refuge in a rocky crevasse. Here, sheltered from the inclement weather, he scribbled down both title and lyrics of the well known hymn.
As other students shared their research, I learned that many of the hymns, such as “Amazing Grace” by John Newton, had interesting and inspiring events surrounding them. However, none of them moved me like Horatio Spafford’s “It is Well with My Soul”.
The title of the hymn might suggest that all was well in the writer’s life, but this was not the case. Spafford’s journey was liberally sprinkled with tragedy, pain and loss. His only son died in 1871. Later the same year, Spafford was financially ruined by the great Chicago Fire. Two years later he planned a trip to Europe, but for business reasons sent his family on ahead. While crossing the Atlantic, their passenger ship collided with another vessel and all four of Spafford’s daughters were killed. His wife Anna survived and sent him a telegram saying “Saved alone.” Later, as Spafford travelled by ship to meet his grieving wife, the captain let him know when they were passing over the area where his daughters had died. It was then that he was inspired to write “It is well With My Soul”.
The Spaffords had three more children; a boy who died in infancy and two more girls. In 1881, they moved to Jerusalem (where he died in 1888) and co-founded the “American Colony,” a mission established to serve the poor. (The colony later became the theme of the Nobel Prize winning “Jerusalem” by novelist Selma Lagerlöf.)
Incidentally, the first stanza and opening line of the chorus are, “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.”
Spafford learned a great spiritual truth: peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of God. Or as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “The LORD gives perfect peace to those whose faith is firm. 4 So always trust the LORD because He is forever our mighty rock” (Isaiah 26:3, 4).