The man, and the story, behind “It is well with my soul”

“It is well with my soul” is one of my all-time favourite hymns.

The words are saturated with the hope and assurance that come from the gospel of Christ crucified, risen and ascended.

The words are heavy, yet they are full of joy, hope, and light. The words would be beautiful on their own, but when I heard the story behind them they took on a deeper significance still.

As he wrote these words Horatio Spafford was in the midst of the darkest days of his life.

In 1871 he lost his only son at the age of two. Then later that same year, Spafford who had invested heavily in Chicago real estate, lost almost everything he owned (some say he lost his entire life savings) in the Great Chicago Fire.

About two years after that, in 1873, Spafford and his family decided to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to help famous evangelist D.L. Moody in some work he was doing in England.

Spafford was called to attend to some last-minute business before he left so he put his wife and four daughters on a UK-bound vessel named the Ville Du Havre. Before the vessel reached the UK it was struck by an iron sailing vessel and sunk rapidly. 226 people on board the ship were killed, including all four of Spafford’s daughters. His wife was rescued, unconscious, from the sea and, after reaching the UK, sent him a telegram containing these words: “Saved Alone”.

Spafford sailed to the UK immediately to be with his wife. The journey was to take him over the location where his four daughters had perished. It was on this journey that Spafford penned the words to this hymn. Have a listen:

What strikes me about these words is that in the midst of his suffering the gospel has remained beautiful to Spafford. I believe that is because even though he is struggling with unimaginable grief and loss, he sees that ultimately his biggest problem remains his own sin. And he knows that this sin has been dealt with by Jesus Christ on the cross, so he is thankful.

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!

Regardless of the suffering that engulfs Spafford, the gospel remains a source of rejoicing and thanksgiving.

Spafford could be forgiven for dwelling on the pain he is experiencing, on the regret, on the unanswered questions running through his head. He could be forgiven for turning in on himself in grief and self-pity.

But he will not look away from his Lord. No, Spafford has his tear-filled eyes fixed on Christ. And what’s more he does not long for the past to be undone, nor for his pain to be inflicted on someone else. Rather, his greatest longing is the same as it was before tragedy struck.

His heavy heart sings at the prospect of Christ’s glorious return:

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.

Spafford is thankful that his sin (in whole) has been nailed to the cross, and he is thankful for the glorious future he has in Christ.

This thankfulness and deep joy is the fruit of the gospel.

This gospel is 100% relevant on the best day of your life.

This gospel is 100% relevant on the worst day of your life.

Nothing else will do.

If we’re ever hearing or preaching a gospel that doesn’t stand up on either of these days then it’s not the true gospel.

We can preach on how to keep going in the midst of financial difficulty, or sadness, or grief — that God is there to fix our problems. But this gospel is not relevant for the Christian who is experiencing the happiest week of his life. Or we can preach that we are sure of the Lord’s love for us because of the material blessings he sometimes chooses to shower us with. But this gospel is irrelevant for the Christian who has lost his job, his home or his children.

No, the true gospel is this: That Jesus Christ died that my sins be taken away — that in him I am counted as a son of God. That in Christ I am a co-heir with him — I am incorporated into the very life and love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

That is what gave Spafford hope on his darkest day. That is what made his heart burn with thanksgiving when all around him had been destroyed. Nothing else.

Brightest day. Darkest day. This is the gospel of Christ. This is Christ in all his glory. Whatever our lot, he is worthy of all praise, and all honour, and all thanksgiving.
Brightest day. Darkest day. We lift our heads and our hearts to him and we receive his grace, his mercy, his love.

And we worship our Lord and our God. Because he is worthy.

Because HE IS.


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