The Story Behind the Song

The Story Behind the Song

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Last Sunday we sang the hymn “It Is Well with My Soul” by Horatio Spafford. It’s a hymn that always gets to me and is one of the few songs that can make me tear up every time I hear it. And part of the reason why is knowing the story behind the song. I knew that Horatio had written the song after the tragic drowning of his four daughters, but there’s actually quite more to the story than that.

Horatio and his wife, Anna, were living a charmed life in Chicago in the 1860s. Horatio was a prominent and wealthy lawyer, and the Spaffords were committed Christians, often inviting famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody into their home for dinners. But in 1870 tragedy struck when the couple's only son, 4-year-old Horatio Spafford, Jr., died from pneumonia.

The following year Horatio invested much of his wealth in real estate along the shores of Lake Michigan. Six months later the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the city, including most of Horatio’s investments, leaving the family in financial trouble. Their house was spared, and though devastated, the family continued to help those in need and comfort their grieving neighbors.

In 1873, having putting these tragedies behind them, the family planned a trip to Europe, to see the sights and also to assist Moody with a revival in England. The day of their voyage a business emergency kept Horatio from sailing with his wife and four daughters: Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta. Anna and the girls sailed on ahead, with Horatio to sail a few days behind them.

In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, their ship collided with another and sank in just 12 minutes. All four Spafford daughters drowned. A distraught Anna sent a simple telegram to her husband: “Saved alone. What shall I do...” Horatio set off for England on the next ship. As the boat sailed over the spot of the tragedy, the captain called Horatio to the deck. That evening, alone in his cabin, Horatio wrote the words to his famous hymn.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say

It is well, it is well, with my soul


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 has 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!


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.


Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago and had three more children. But tragedy wasn’t over, even then. Their son, again named Horatio, died from scarlet fever at 4 years old, just like their first born. The words to this great hymn were birthed out of terrible tragedy and are still true today. What kind of faith would cause a man who had just lost everything to proclaim his praise to the Lord? That’s the kind of faith I long to have.

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  • One of my favorite hymns!! Unfortunately, Horatio G. Spafford also became mentally ill years after the wreck. Sorta sad.... still one of my favorite hymns!

  • One of my fav hymns but I never knew the story behind it, yes what faith in a Good God in the midst of whatever situation we stand. Thank you for the article really blessed my heart but I also feel songs as this where mostly written in times of great pain as they speak of hope, Good times don't bring this out of ones soul.

  • The Spaffords later in life also ministered in Jerusalem.

  • Such a great hymn!

    That story has always given it more substance, too. A man with a happy, carefree life didn't write that; somebody who actually knew what he was talking about did.

  • The peace of God isn't something you earn by faith.  God is good and He gives it to us as a gift.  Earlier on Boundless I have written about the trauma of my wife suffering three miscarriages.  In March she told me she was pregnant again - That's when I began to suffer extreme anxiety and emotional breakdown because I couldn't bear the thought of losing another child.

    One afternoon I feel into a deep sleep and dreamed I was a party.  One unusually perceptive and bright six year old girl from my Sunday school class ran up to me.  She told me she saw the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ hovering above my wife and protecting the baby and that everything was going to alright this time.  I felt a peace I have never felt before and woke up with all my anxiety is gone.  I'm not worried about a thing.

    How can one distinguish the peace of God from wishful thinking?  I was given a fourfold test.  Firstly, the thoughts you are having should be alien to your usual way of thinking and must have come from somewhere else.  Second, the beliefs you have must be fully in line with all of scripture.  Thirdly, there needs to be some external confirmation of the thoughts.  Fourthly, there must be an accompanying peace that couldn't have come from within.

    In John 14:27 it is recorded that Jesus said "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." Our baby is due on December 4th.  I will keep everyone posted.

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