One of the Church’s richest treasures over the centuries has been its vast repertoire of hymnody.
From the chants of one thousand years ago to the most recent hymns penned by living authors and musicians, the hymns of the Christian Church speak to humanity’s greatest longings, fears, joys, sorrows, worship, and praise to God. Many hymns are settings of the Psalms. These ancient hymns also express the range of human emotion and were often sung to the accompaniment of stringed or other instruments. Some hymns are paraphrases of other Biblical texts from Old and New Testaments. Others are free expressions of the authors’ faith and response to life experiences. We can personally appropriate these deep expressions of faith, hope, prayer, and praise as they relate to the varying circumstances of our own lives.
In light of recent tragedies we have all witnessed, including mass shootings, war and other violence, as well as increasing challenges in day-to-day living, we can turn to hymns for consolation, comfort, hope, and assurance…
One such hymn is It Is Well with My Soul.
The text was written by Horatio G. Spafford (1828 – 1888). Spafford had a law practice in Chicago and was a professor of medical jurisprudence at Lind University (now Chicago Medical Center). He was a Sunday School teacher and served as a director and trustee for the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest in Chicago.
In late 1873 Spafford and his wife and four daughters scheduled a trip from the United States to France. Due to work requirements, Spafford sent the rest of his family ahead of himself, aboard the French liner Ville du Havre. He would join them in France a few days later. On November 22, in the middle of the Atlantic, the French liner collided with the English vessel Lochearn and sank in twelve minutes. All four of Spafford’s daughters perished; only his wife survived. She cabled him the news “Saved alone” from Wales. He quickly departed on the next ship to meet her there. When Spafford’s ship passed over the spot in the High Atlantic where his daughters had succumbed to the depths, he began to pen the words “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll…” The text of the refrain is a paraphrase of the words of Julian of Norwich: “And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” A family friend, Philip P. Bliss, wrote the soothing music for Spafford’s text.
It required an enormous amount of faith and trust for Spafford to declare “It Is Well with My Soul” in the midst of such tragic loss. Yet, when we are reminded of the love of God from which nothing can separate us (Romans 8:38-39), we too can be strengthened and comforted.
The study of hymns is informative, fascinating, and faith-building. An excellent online source is hymnary.org. There one can find texts, biographical information, and the background of hymn texts such as this one.
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…Lord hasten the day when our faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll, the trumpet shall sound and the Lord shall descend; even so, it is well with my soul.
-Written by BSPC organist, Jim Hildreth
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