Growing up, few songs moved me as much as The Great Hymn of the Faith It Is Well with My Soul. The head pastor of the church I grew up in had a near obsession with the hymn – though we always had a music minister in the church, the pastor often led the congregation in a hymn at the end of the service. He was an old-school evangelist of the highest caliber – not a moralizer, not a great apologist, but rather a person who was infatuated with what I grew up knowing as the Gospel of Jesus. The only time I ever saw him out of a suit was at the annual church picnic, and on occasions when he was headed out to the golf course on Friday afternoons.
He would stand at the pulpit after delivering a sermon and after holding the altar call, and then announce the final song, instantly transforming into a choir director, “I know we’re a few minutes over today, but here we go – men only, now, the ladies join in on the chorus.” And, “In unison for the first half, then break it into four-part harmony.” We reverently obeyed, producing what I truly believed at the time to be some of the most beautiful sounds in the universe.
Horatio Spafford penned the lyrics to It Is Well with My Soul in 1873. The lyrics were paid for with the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire, and with the tragic death of Spafford’s children in an ocean liner accident. In Chicago, Spafford had been a wealthy lawyer who invested heavily in real estate in the rapidly developing Lake Michigan coastline of the mid 1800s. Much of his fortune was consumed by the flames of the famous blaze in 1871. Then, in 1873, Spafford’s wife and children were on a transatlantic vessel when it collided with another. The couple’s four children (their only son had already died at 4 of scarlet fever) all perished, though Anna Spafford survived. The couple would go on to have three more children, but their second boy would also die at the age of 4.
It was as Spafford set out to reunite with his wife in England after the accident, while crossing into the waters of the Atlantic where four of his young children had just perished, and in the still tumultuous wake of the economic devastation of his world, that he wrote:
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.
The tune was added in 1876 by P.P. Bliss.
I now play the song on my violin quite often. It’s the only hymn (aside from the Christmas tune Oh Holy Night) that I have muscled through in its entirety – it’s really not too bad to play. I think I’m playing it in D major, and I can make it sound pretty good, relatively speaking and as a beginner, of course. As I’ve remembered them, the lyrics of the first verse and the chorus continue to resonate with me. I think the central message of the song is something most people of any or no faith can take to heart.
Thanks for reading.