and that in the end He will stand on the earth.
At the very start of praying and planning for the Hallelujah: A Collection of Hymns album, I knew I needed to find out which hymns meant the most to my friends, family, and fans. There were hymns I definitely wanted to include on the CD because they had been such a part of my own personal journey, but I also wanted this album to feel personal to all of you…so I did a survey and asked everyone to share what hymns were their top favorites and why. Many of you responded, and my list of hymns became quite long- there was no way I could ever possibly include all the songs on one album! It did give me a better idea of which ones are the most treasured and I just loved hearing everyone’s stories of why the particular hymns meant so much to them. It was wonderful when people would share with me a not-so-common hymn, too. It broadened my brainstorming and got the creative juices flowing as I played around with several hymns on the piano, prayed a lot, and pondered. I wasn’t too surprised when the overwhelming response for top favorite hymn was “It Is Well With My Soul.” Countless people requested that this song be on the album, and it’s pretty easy to understand why. This song resonates with the deepest part of our humanity- that even through trial and change and storms and unknown, we can still praise God and cling to His abiding peace and constant presence.
Many of the hymns on the album I rearranged with new refrains and bridges, a couple of them I even wrote new tunes, while still trying to keep the album as true to the historic hymns as possible. For this particular song, I knew it needed to be simple. I wanted to keep this hymn in its classic, pure form which resonates with so many who treasure it. Over the past few years there have been a number of beautiful new renditions of “It Is Well With My Soul” by contemporary worship songwriters. I just wanted to go back to the original version and hopefully somehow do it justice. However, in its simplicity I wrestled with how to make it special, to stand out for all of those who had requested this song.
Jamie and I were talking about it in our kitchen one day (which is also my in-home music studio and practice room, not to mention Joey’s basketball court and hockey rink as well as our office…pretty much our “everything room!”) I can’t remember who had the idea first, but we agreed instantly that I needed to do a duet with someone, and that someone needed to be Krista Dengler, my close friend who is also one of the worship leaders at our church. Krista released her debut album, Still I Will Sing in 2017 (and just as a side note, our little Joey has come to LOVE her album, requesting it every time we are in the car these days. It’s one of my favorite CDs too!) So I shot Krista a text and asked if she would be on board to sing with me on this song…I was overjoyed when she replied “yes!”
On April 7th last year, Krista and I went to the studio together to record the vocals and harmonies…what a beautiful day it was, being able to sing together and hear Krista’s rich voice through the microphone. My producer loved her voice as well. I believe his exact word to describe it was “smoky.” I think you’ll know what he meant when you hear the recording. She has a rare vocal quality when she sings, but more beautiful than that, Krista truly has a genuine, humble heart to worship, so it was such a joy getting to collaborate with her on this song and praise the Lord together. Plus, spending the weekend with a dear friend traveling to and from the studio made for lots of chatter, laughs, and memories!
Many of you may know bits and pieces of the story behind Horatio Gates Spafford who wrote the words to “It Is Well With My Soul” in 1873…for it is a story that isn’t easily forgotten in the pages of history. I’d like to share some of that story here with you…
In 1871 the great Chicago fire swept through the Windy City. Spafford was an attorney there with hefty investments in real estate, and like countless others, he lost almost everything. Not only that, but his only son tragically passed away from scarlet fever at the young age of 4 years around the same time. Spafford was overwhelmed with loss and mourning, yet he was passionate about helping in the efforts to rebuild Chicago. He also was very involved in aiding the over 100,000 displaced and homeless after the fire.
After all they had been through, Spafford decided to take his family on a trip to Europe in November of 1873, where they would meet up with his close friend and evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, and Ira Sankey, as they had gospel crusades in Great Brittain at that time. The Spaffords planned to join the evangelistic meetings and then enjoy a family vacation. Unfortunately, last minute business detained Horatio in New York, but he sent his wife, Anna, and their four daughters, Annie (age 9), Maggie (age 7), Bessie (age 3), and Tanetta (just 4 months old), onto Paris. As Anna and the girls boarded the French steamer, the SS Ville du Havre, Horatio felt a little uneasy, so he moved them to a room closer to the bow of the ship.
Four days into their trip, on November 22, the passengers felt a sudden jolt in the middle of the night that woke everyone up and led most of them running to the deck…there was confusion and fear that grew into sudden chaos, screams and terror…The Ville du Havre had crashed into the Scottish three-masted iron sailing vessel, the Loch Earn. Anna Spafford knelt on the deck with her four young daughters and prayed that God would spare them, if it be His will, or make them willing to endure whatever awaited them. In just 12 minutes, the ship sank below the waves. Out of the 313 on board, only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived the wreck, leaving 226 to sink to the Atlantic. Anna held tight to her infant, Tanetta, but she was tragically swept out of her arms by debris. Anna was barely conscious when she was rescued from a piece of the wreckage and brought onto the Loch Earn. An American cargo ship, the Tremountain, soon rescued everyone from the Loch Earn, which was left to sink as well, soon after…
Anna made it to Cardiff, Wales, but her four precious daughters had drowned. She sent a cable to Horatio, “Saved alone. What shall I do?…” A ship survivor, Pastor Weiss, recalled Anna expressing both her raw grief and steadfast faith, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” Horatio rushed to England as soon as he could board a ship. As they crossed the Atlantic on a cold December night, the captain called him to the mast and told him he believed they were passing the place where the Ville du Havre had sunk. Horatio went to his cabin and began writing the hymn we now know and love, “It Is Well With My Soul.” Peace had swept into the midst of his pain and God gave him such personal and profound faith in that moment. The next week he wrote to one of his relatives, “On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”
The Spaffords were later blessed with more children, two daughters, Bertha and Grace, and a son named Horatio. However, horrific tragedy struck again when Horatio died from scarlet fever at only three years old. They had to cling to their Savior once again in hope and faith…In the midst of so much suffering, they began to believe fervently that the End Days were near and decided to move to the Holy Land. Horatio wrote to a friend, “Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered and conquered, and I, too, wish to learn how to live, suffer and, especially, to conquer.” They arrived in 1881 with a small group of 16 other friends and settled in a home they called the “American Colony.” They were not missionaries, but this group who called themselves “The Overcomers” were very generous and hospitable to all- Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. A Group of over 100 Swedish Christians joined them and they moved to a larger home. During WWI the community ran a soup kitchen for the needy and a hospital for those wounded from both armies. The “American Colony” was somewhat of a utopian society and lasted until the 1950s, when the group disbanded. However, the American Colony Hotel was the location where the Palestinian and Israeli peace talks took place leading up to the 1983 Oslo Peace Accords.
The Spafford’s daughter, Bertha, carried on her parent’s legacy there… In 1925, on Christmas Eve, a Bedouin and his sick wife and newborn baby rode by Bertha on a donkey as she was rushing to Bethlehem to sing carols and meet up with her husband and children. She took the woman to a hospital, but sadly it was too late and she passed away. The father begged Bertha to take the baby. She agreed and named him Noel. Soon two more orphans were brought to Bertha and she founded the Spafford Baby Home, which later turned into a children’s hospital. The Spafford Children’s Center remains today and serves people of all faiths and cultural backgrounds to help children with medical and other needs.
When one digs a little deeper into the Spafford’s story and reads of some of the theology and practices of their “American Colony” in Jerusalem, it is easy to unearth some strange, even heretical teaching and what would be considered “cult-like” and unbiblical practices…It seems that they denied the existence of hell, preached Universalism, falsely prophesied and demanded their followers to work hard while confiscating all the resources and controlling who could buy what. Because they believed the return of Christ to be imminent, Anna Spafford even forbade any new marriages at one point. At first this was quite troubling for me to learn and caused my heart to grieve, because this song is so well-loved by Christians around the globe, and the story behind it so very profound. But then I am reminded…we cannot put our hope into pastors or preachers or prophets or songwriters or church leaders or historical figures, but rather in Jesus Christ alone. Many may flounder in their faith and fail us, but our Lord Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever- constant and ever true. The “heroes” of the Bible themselves let us down time and again, only to remind us that we have one, and only one Savior. The Apostle Paul wrote, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:18) So take heart- even if the Spaffords themselves had questionable faith practices at the end of the day, we can still sing confidently, “It is Well With My Soul,” because God has used the message of this song to point to the saving power of the cross and the hope of our resurrection and life and peace in Christ.
The tune to “It is Well With My Soul,” VILLE DU HAVRE, is named after the steamer which tragically sunk in the Atlantic and caused Spafford’s dear daughters to drown. However, the tune was written by a man name Philip Paul Bliss. Bliss was on staff at a church in Chicago as music director and superintendent of the Sunday school, but after the continual urging of his friend D. L. Moody for Bliss to devote his life to evangelistic singing, he took a job in 1874 as song leader and children’s ministry director for the Major Daniel W. Whittle evangelistic campaign. It was during this time that he wrote the tune to “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Bliss received a telegram over the Christmas holiday in 1876 when he was visiting family in Pennsylvania. He was requested to return home early to sing at Moody’s Tabernacle back in Chicago. He and his wife, Lucy, took the Pacific Express train and left their children in Pennsylvania with Philip’s mother. The train was running late as they passed through Ohio in a thick snowstorm and suddenly a trestle bridge under it collapsed. All eleven of the train cars fell into a deep ravine, with only the engine making it safely to the other side. Philip amazingly survived, but as a fire began spreading, he crawled back inside a window to rescue his beloved wife. They both died that day. 92 of the 160 passengers lost their lives. Almost everything was ravaged in the fire, but Bliss’s trunk arrived in Chicago. The words to the now famous hymn, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer” were discovered inside with his belongings among other poems and hymns he had recently written but not yet published. On January 5th, a memorial song service for Bliss was held with an astounding 8,000 in attendance and an additional 4,000 who stood outside in the cold Chicago winter air. It was only one month prior to his death in the horrific train accident that “It is Well With My Soul” was sung publicly for the first time at a ministers’ meeting in Chicago.
A song like “It Is Well With My Soul” reminds us that it is the God of the past, the present, and the future whom we worship. No matter what has happened or what may come our way, our God is Sovereign and Good and True. He is with us and will never leave us nor forsake us. Our souls truly can find no other peace or confidence but in the blood of Jesus Christ and the redemption and glory and grace He gives. Tragic stories like Spafford’s and Bliss’s are hard to understand. Even now as I write, I struggle trying to swallow the reality of suffering in this life and the great unknown of what may come tomorrow. Yet, we must cling to Jesus. We must praise Him in the midst of the storm. We must hold onto faith even when fear or doubts try to steal our peace. Because when we praise, we overcome. We go from being victims of pain and loss and tragedy to victors of hope eternal- hope which will not disappoint.
Peterson, Randy. Be Still My Soul:The Inspiring Stories Behind 175 of the Most-Loved Hymns. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2014.
Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003.
Cheaney, Fanie B. It is Well…A Great Hymn Came from the pen of a troubled-and troublesome-man. https://world.wng.org/2019/04/it_is_well
Reese, Ed. “The Life and Ministry of Philip Bliss.” https://www.wholesomewords.org/biography/biobliss.html
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, American Colony in Jerusalem Collection. American Colony, and Horatio Gates Stafford. Draft manuscript copy of hymn “It is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Gates Spafford. to 1878, 1873. Manuscript/Mixed Material. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mamcol.016
D, Ph. “Story Behind the Song: It Is Well With My Soul.” https://www.staugustine.com/article/20141016/LIFESTYLE/310169936
Stewart, Rev. Angus. “Horatio Stafford: Not Well With His Soul.” https://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/spafford.html#.XYOxXC3My8U
Miano, Tony. Cross Encounters: It Is Well With My Soul: An Exposition of My Favorite Hymn (Part 1). http://www.crossencounters.us/2013/10/it-is-well-with-my-soul-exposition-of.html