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

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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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