It Is Well

If there’s a running theme in many of my favorite songs, it’s that the lyrics mean something. They’re elegant, yes, but also significant. There is a special class of songs where the emotional weight to those songs shifted significantly after I learned the backstory or the context in which the songs were written. For example, Cloud Cult’s “Pretty Voice” takes on a new poignancy when you learn that it’s a song about the death of singer Craig Minowa’s two-year old son. The line, “This is the lifelong song we’re all singing: It’s been so long since I’ve heard that pretty voice” now brings tears to my eyes every single time. Learning that “The Mistress Witch from McClure” is about how Sufjan Stevens catching his father in adultery brings to the forefront a melancholy that was slumbering in the background. “It is Well with My Soul” also belongs in this category.

“It is Well with My Soul” was written by a 19th Century American attorney named Horatio Spafford. In 1873, following the death of his only son and his financial ruin due to the Great Chicago Fire, Spafford sent his wife and four daughters to Europe. Horatio stayed behind to tend to some lingering business matters. As it was crossing the Atlantic, their boat, the Ville du Havre, collided with a Scottish clipper called the Loch Earn. The Ville de Havre sank. All four of Spafford’s daughters died. (His wife survived and sent him a telegram reading “Saved alone.”) When Spafford sailed to meet his grieving wife, he passed near to the spot where the Ville de Havre sank and was moved to write the lyrics to the now-famous hymn.

Knowing the tragic background, I can’t help but read those lyrics with a renewed intensity and heartrending awe. It is not easy to be joyful in the midst of death or suffering, and the notion that, whatever our circumstances, we should be content in God is both difficult and beautiful. Knowing the writer himself suffered so acutely makes that notion a little easier to swallow.

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 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.

My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

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.

But, Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the 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

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