The Curious Theology Behind The Hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”

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Original Photo; CC 2.0

Should tragedy ever find me I hope, and pray, that grace would be there to carry me through it. I know it has the potential. There is a never-ending fountain of it flowing for me; “grace upon grace” I believe the scriptures call it.  It’s an absolutely incredible truth for any and every Christian; it’s beautiful. It’s inspired 1000’s of hymns, one of which has always been strangely over-pious and curious to me. I refer to “It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Spafford.

The first time I heard the story behind the hymn, I felt like a Christian wimp. How could someone have that much faith and respond that way midst such tragedy? I know grace and God can do amazing things, but to respond with such faith when you’ve lost 5 children is beyond me. I can’t help but put myself in that situation and know I would not respond that way. I would be crestfallen, angry, broken, and probably feel lost. I would be desperate and destroyed. It hurts me to even think about it. Yet, this was Mr. Spafford’s situation and he responded by writing one of the most memorable Christian hymns of all time.

However, there is some new research that suggests Horatio Spafford, author of “It Is Well With My Soul” might not be the example of faith we all thought he was.

 

The Story Behind The Hymn

If you are not familiar with the story, I’ll give you the short version. Or if you are more of a visual person, you can watch a short youtube video on it here.

Basically. there was this chap named Horatio Spafford. He was a rather wealthy businessman that lived in Chicago in the mid 1800’s. He was a married man with 5 children.

In 1871 tragedy struck when his youngest son became ill and died. Shortly after this, the great Chicago fire broke out. It was a time of immense turmoil for the Horatio and his wife, Anna. It was bad enough that he decided he, his wife, and 4 remaining children needed a vacation

In 1873 they decided to go to England and travel with evangelist and close friend DL Moody. However, at the last minute Horatio had a business emergency. he was unable to go. Despite this, he encouraged his wife and 4 daughters to get on the ship and head across the great pond. He would meet up with them later.

Several days later he received a telegram from his wife in England that another ship had run into the boat his family was on. He lost all 4 of his daughters. Only she survived. She wrote, “saved alone, what shall I do?” In the midst of just 2 years he had lost all 5 of his children. Absolutely horrific.

He quickly made plans to meet up with his grieving wife in England.

On the way there, the captain of the boat came up to Horatio and let him know when they were passing over the spot believed to be where his 4 children drowned. At that moment he penned the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.”

 

It Is Well With My Soul

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.

 

It is well (it is well),

with my soul (with my soul),

It is well, it is well with my soul.

 

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,

And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

 

(Refrain)

 

My sin, oh the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to His cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

 

(Refrain)

 

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:

If Jordan above me shall roll,

No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life

Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

 

(Refrain)

 

And Lord haste the day, when my 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.

 

How in the world can someone, in that situation, have such a pious mindset?! It seems insane and new research is showing just how true that statement might be. In a recent book by Jane Geniesse, called “American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem,” it is laid out how out there Horatio and some his followers actually were.

I warn you ahead of time if you love this hymn or story, this might ruin your day.

 

The Curious Theology of Horatio Spafford

Horatio ran a universalist church with followers often called “Spafforites” or “Overcomers.” not unlike some cults, they believed that the rest of organized religion was missing it and they alone had the truth. So much so, he willingly excommunicated himself from the local Presbyterian congregation. They did not believe in hell and even contended that Satan would be redeemed.

His congregation was known for all kinds of strange behavior. Such as using sanctified “Holy Oranges.”

(What is that anyway?) There were several attempted resurrections of former deceased members (at least one baby), numerous false prophecies, claims of immortality, and more.

One of the more interesting details is that he and his wife decided that to do away with marriages within the church. They asked people to throw away their wedding rings. Anna, his wife, even once said that “Marriage is license to sin”. She often committed adultery as way be to be more pious and encouraged others to do the same. In following with this logic the children were often removed from the homes of married couples and sent to live with single women.

You can read more about the wackiness of Spafford and his church in an article here

If these allegations are true, then, it might be safe to assume that Spafford was somewhat of a sociopath. He appears to have little regard for life, marriage, and family. It’s tragic, really. But, this could explain why his famous hymn has been frustrating to me. Perhaps, he responds this way because he was barely capable of real human emotion? If this information is true, then Spafford and his followers are to be pitied. They were deceived and led astray.

Spafford and The Overcomers (which sounds like a great band name) eventually traveled to Jerusalem to start an American Colony where he hoped to bring about the end times. However, Spafford died a few days shy of his 60th birthday (October, 16, 1888). Wikipedia adds that his American Colony did some great things to aid the communities that were affect by WW1.

 

Conclusion

If this is all true, should we continue to sing and worship to “It Is Well With My Soul?” Or a broader question, should the church continue singing songs written by people who have had some type of moral or spiritual failure?

In short -I think we should. Obviously, each situation is different and should take each with a case by case basis. But, the great thing about believing in objective truth is that, its objective. It’s not dependent on a man to be true. Its dependent on God. The songs don’t change their lyrics even if their authors change their minds. Art stands on its own, as it should. It also highlights how God continues to redeem and create beauty out of our ugliness.

I don’t know if Spafford should be a hero of the faith or just a guy who wrote a great hymn. Regardless, that hymn has touched and encouraged millions enduring a trail, myself included. Those that have been encuraged need to remember that that glory and work belongs to God, not Spafford. If it were to confirmed, and generally accepted, that Spafford was somewhat of a spiritual nut it doesn’t change how that hymn has affected you or me. It just provides a little insight into how God’s uses truth to redeem and transform.

 

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  • mia kulper

    well, bless his heart……………..does put a bit of a downward spin on the man but I shall pursue more research on the matter – I guess the moral is that even a broken clock is right twice a day………….. the hymn is still lovely. And look at David and Solomon ..the list goes on………… should we stop reading the Bible? Thanks for the information as much as it is sad to hear…..but that is what keeps one’s focus on He who is perfect and not on the people He made.

    • corky

      And if we stopped singing hymns by everyone who had a moral “failure” would there be any left to sing? 🙂 “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”

      • mia kulper

        Yes – it’s a beautiful hymn. It’s good to know about his off course behavior after writing the hymn but we should venerate a person anyway. All are flawed. But the story about what inspired his words and the beauty of the hymn, so much comfort there. And it has blessed people for many years and will continue to do so. We will all endure a fiery furnace in our life times – a test of faith and trust in our God. It will always be well with my soul.

  • Speck

    I don’t like the hymn but not because of Spafford’s wackiness. I find that many people hear the “Thou hast taught me to say” and “No pang shall be mine” as “I’m a bad Christian if I grieve; I’m going against God’s teachings if I feel sorrow or ‘pangs'”. I am glad it’s a meaningful hymn for some, but I find it harms many struggling with loss. The central message is beautiful – but as one who has had to unpack that guilt for many faithful people, there are other hymns that are better that I’d rather sing. God is one who grieves with us, even as we celebrate the resurrection.

  • Robert H. Woodman

    I’m not sure at all what you are trying to say in your conclusion. You worded that pretty poorly, in my humble opinion.

    • Jack Lee

      What part wasn’t clear? I would be happy to try and clear the air.

      • Robert H. Woodman

        Jack,

        Thanks for responding. Here’s the source of my confusion:

        If this is all true, should we continue to sing and worship to “It Is Well With My Soul?” Or a broader question, should the church stop singing songs written by people who have had some type of moral or spiritual failure?

        In short – I think we should. Obviously, each situation is different and should take each with a case by case basis. But, the great thing about believing in objective truth is that, its objective. It’s not dependent on a man to be true. Its dependent on God. The songs don’t change their lyrics even if their authors change their minds. Art stands on its own, as it should. It also highlights how God continues to redeem and create beauty out of our ugliness.

        You wrote “should the church stop singing songs written by people who have had some type of moral or spiritual failure? … I think we should.” Okay, so your point is that if a person has a moral or spiritual failure in life, all the good music that he or she has done should no longer be sung. That seems clear enough.

        Then you followed that up with the next four sentences that argue the exact opposite of your initial point. That is, the next four sentences in that second paragraph argue, in essence, that objective truth stands on its own; therefore, if a song is objectively truthful, we should keep on singing it regardless of the moral or spiritual failings of the songwriter. That also seems clear enough.

        The problem is that your first point — stop singing the songs — and your second point — keep on singing the songs — are mutually exclusive. Somewhere you wrote something you didn’t intend to write. I suspect that your second argument is the one that you want to advance, but if you want your conclusion to make sense, you need to rewrite your first point so that it doesn’t contradict the second point.

        • Jack Lee

          I see your point and, honestly, I don’t recall how or why it’s worded that’s way – this was written several years ago and has slipped under the radar. The two questions are meant work in parallel and not against each other. Thank you very much for bringing that to my attention.

          I’ll adjust the “broader question” sentence to capture the meaning and change the word from “stop” to “continue”. This was written so long ago that I don’t recall exactly how it was intended to be written. However, this should resolve the unintentional contradiction while preserving the content.

          • Robert H. Woodman

            Thanks, Jack. That makes sense now, and I agree with you that many times the hymns stand on their own apart from the personal failings of the hymn writer (which is why the Psalms of David the King remain so popular).

          • Jack Lee

            Amen!

        • billwald

          Who doesn’t have a moral or spiritual failure?

          • Robert H. Woodman

            Apart from Jesus, we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Often more than once. Sometimes more than once in the same day.

  • Rhinnie

    This just increases my love of this hymn, thanks for sharing.

    • Jack Lee

      Glad you enjoyed!

  • Charles Winter

    There were many religious movements in the 19th Century, some of which had different ideas about marriage and sexuality. The Mormons practiced polygamy, the Oneida community and others practiced free love, and the Shakers gave up sex altogether.

    Btw, the Universalists were not and are not some small cult. In fact, in the 1800s, they held what was then the largest religious gathering ever in the country. In 1960, they merged with the Unitarian Association, which remains a mid-size Church,

  • billwald

    It is well with my soul. There is no point worrying about things over which I have no control and have no understanding. I don’t understand God thus have no basis for complaint.

  • Michelle

    I have issue with this statement: “How in the world can someone, in that situation, have such a pious mindset?! It seems insane and new research is showing just how true that statement might be.” I read the article you linked to about Spafford and his group, and yes, he seems wacky. But to say that it is ‘insane’ for a Christian in the midst of great tragedy to be able to say, “It is well with my soul” suggests to me that the author does not have a personal and intimate walk with Christ. When my husband and I lost our 16 year old son this year in a totally unexpected accident (drowned at a lake while with friends), in the midst of our intense grief, we were upheld by the Lord and, indeed, we could say with the author, “It is well with my soul.” Christ is so bountiful in His riches and depth, and I think sometimes it takes going through something like losing a child (or other big hardship) to realize the depth of His grace. And the Lord truly used wacky Spafford’s hymn – the chorus played in my head again and again in that first traumatic week, and really brought me peace.

  • Aloha

    This article reminds me of a line from “For What Its Worth” by Buffalo Springfield – ‘Nobody’s right if everbody’s wrong’. If anyone here knew my past I would be judged by everyone here in one way or another. BUT I now one thing.. it doesn’t matter what his, mine, or your past was. It doesn’t matter if his or mine or your theology is right or wrong. All that matters is He love’s us so so much that Jesus took it all for us and we are now brothers and sisters because of His unfathomable sacrifice. That is the anchor, the cornerstone. Thank you for your conclusion. I’m not going to judge this man’s heart, thats not for me to do. I love this song. I’m glad he wrote it so I’m going to sing it!