The Story Behind the Song: It Is Well With My Soul

This is one of my favorite hymns.  It has been for many years.  When I discovered the story behind the song – somewhere during my high school years – the song gained an even greate emotional impact for me.

The Songwriter

Horatio G. Spafford, his wife Anna, and their five children lived in Chicago.  Horatio was a successful lawyer and businessman.  In 1871, their young son died from pneumonia and much of Spafford’s business property was lost in the Chicago fire.  Spafford would rebuild his business and gave all the credit for this recovery to the grace and kindness of God.  

In 1873, Horatio and Anna made plans to travel, via an ocean liner called Ville du Havre, to Europe.  A last minute business problem kept Horation in Chicago while Anna and the kids boarded the ship.  Horatio made arrangement to take another boat a few days later and meet his family in Europe.

Tragedy Strikes

Four days into the trip, the Ville du Havre collided with an iron hulled ship our of Scotland called the Loch Earn.  Anna gathered her four girls and they hurried to the deck of the ship where they prayed for deliverance or for the endurance to face what was coming.  12 minutes later, the ship sank, taking more than 200 passengers as she went down.  Among the victims were the Spafford’s four children.

A sailor, moving through the wreckage, saw a woman clinging to a piece of debris.  It was Anna Spafford.

The sailor pulled Mrs. Spafford into the boat and the two of them were picked up by a larger vessel.  Nine days later, she was put ashore in Cardiff, Wales.  She sent her husband a heartbreaking telegram – “Save alone.  What shall I do?”  She would later tell another survivor of the wreck, Pastor Weiss, “God gave me four daughters.  Now they have been taken from me.  Someday I will understand why.”  

A Father’s Grief

After receiving the telegram from his wife, Spafford booked passage on the next available ship.  At his request, the Captain notified Spafford when they were over the place where the Ville du Havre went down.  According to Bertha Spafford Vester – a daughter born after in later years – it was while on this journey that Spafford penned the words to his famous hymn.

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

Life After Tragedy

The Spaffords would go on to have three more children, one of whom would die of pneumonia at the age of 4.  The family moved to Jerusalem in 1881.  Spafford would live there until his death and is buried there.  

The Role Of Music in the Church

Few topics can generate a heated discussion quite as quickly as a mentioning music in the church. From style preference to instrumentation, whether hymnals should be used or lyrics should be projected on slides, many people of faith have strong opinions the role of music in the church.

I am no different – I have a “preferred” style of worship just like many others. And it would be oh so easy to get into a heated discussion in defense of my preference.

But what does Scripture say?

A Joyful Approach

Let me get this out of the way right away – there is no Bible verse that specifically states that one particular type of worship is the only right approach. But there are definitely some guidelines given about our approach and our attitude.

Psalm 71:23 – My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you – I whom you have delivered.
Psalm 95:1 – Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD: let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Psalm 98:4 – Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.

These verses all connect three things – shouting, joy, and singing. The joy is to be the catalyst. The singing and shouting are the response to the joy. Now let me be clear – I am NOT saying that you are OBLIGATED to shout in a Sunday morning worship gathering. But there is a definition connection between joy and an enthusiastic approach to worship.

The Use of Instruments

Pick an instrument family, and some member of it is mentioned in scripture. Job 30:31 mentions a harp and flute. Nehemiah 12:27 mentions cymbals, harps, and lyres. The timbrel is mentioned in Psalm 81:2. Other verses mention trumpets, the use of a ram’s horn, and the pipe. All the instruments that are mentioned in the Old Testament were the “popular” instruments of that time. In other words, the instruments being used in worship were the same instruments that were popular outside of the temple as well. If it was acceptable in the Old Testament to use contemporary instruments in worship, then it stands to reason that it’s acceptable to do the same today – keyboards, guitars, drum sets, etc.

Importance Inferred

When God was establishing the 12 tribes as a nation, he set aside the tribe of Levi to be the spiritual leaders for His people. The ONLY responsibility the Levites had was overseeing the various functions of the temple. In I Chronicles 15, we get a hint at how God viewed the importance of music and its use in the temple. Verse 22 says –

Chenaniah, chief of the Levites, was in charge of the singing; he gave instruction in singing because he was skillful.
The Levites were set apart for the special task of running the temple. From that set apart group Chenaniah was set apart to lead the singing and teach others to sing. Think about it. His full-time job was to lead the singing and teach others to sing. In verses 16-21, we see a long list of Levites who were set aside to play specific instruments or serve as gatekeepers. But Chenaniah is mentioned alone. For every other musical task groups are listed. But God chose this one person to put his God-given skill to use in a leadership role.

Valid Concerns

The internet has many articles/blog posts/opinion pieces about the “evils” of praise bands. Musicians are scolded and told to remember that a worship gathering is not a performance. I will be the first to agree that some praise bands play so loudly that I cannot hear myself sing. That definitely discourages members of the congregation from participating – which is actually the whole point of music at a worship gathering! But I’ve also been in more traditional services where the organist had the exact same volume issues, playing so loudly that the windows rattled and those in attendance were barely heard.

I’ve seen articles telling musicians not to worry about being “well-rehearsed” because they aren’t putting on a show. I completely agree with the “it’s not a show” philosophy. But I vehemently disagree that rehearsal isn’t necessary. If God cared enough about music in his temple to set aside a group of priests as musicians – and one lead singer! – then it’s safe to say that excellence matters.

“But it’s for Jesus. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” Well that’s great news! A truly perfect performance is a rarity – there’s always that one breath that doesn’t last quite as long as you thought it would! But would you tell a preacher not to study scripture or write out some notes for his sermon? After all, that’s being done for Jesus as well so perfection doesn’t matter.

Of course you wouldn’t. You’d want him to have studied Scripture, to be well-prepared, and to have prayed over what the Spirit has for him to say. It’s the same with musicians. They should be giving the very best that they have as a sincere act of worship and reverence.

What Matters Most

I’ve saved my most favorite Bible passage about music for this last moment.

Eph. 5:18-20 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This verse talks about two key concepts regarding music in worship –

  • “speaking to one another with psalms, hymn, and songs from the Spirit” – The Holy Spirit should be the impetus behind our music and he wants to use it to touch the lives of those around us.
  • “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” – Music as an act of worship is to move from our hearts – the seat of our emotions in our culture and a common symbol of love – to the Lord.

These two pieces are really all that matter. The rest of it is just a lot of noise that the enemy hopes will distract us from the real purpose of music in worship.