“It Is Well with My Soul” by Elizabeth Gelfeld


September 4, 2022

Today is the final Sunday of our Summer season, and for the past six weeks we’ve been exploring the theme of “Faith in Hard Times.” Many of you have shared your reflections on this theme during our Gathering Circles and in various smaller-group meetings of Seekers.

Let us pray:

O God, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you are acquainted with all my ways.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
I try to count them – they are more than the sand;
I come to the end – I am still with you.


In today’s gospel reading, Jesus continues a series of direct challenges to the people he meets as he travels toward Jerusalem, where he will face his death. In the chapters of Luke that we’ve been reading lately, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan; he insults the religious scholars; says he has come to divide fathers against sons and mothers against daughters; and publicly breaks the law by healing on the Sabbath. Now, Jesus says that if we want to follow him we have to turn our backs on our families and our precious plans for our own lives, carry the cross, and give up all our possessions.

For insight on this gospel, I refer you to Marjory’s reflection for Inward/Outward, posted yesterday. (https://inwardoutward.org/clearing-space/) This morning, I’m going to turn our attention to the hymn we sang together a few minutes ago, and what it might tell us about faith in hard times.*

It begins, “When peace, like a river, upholds me each day, … .” At first this might seem like a mismatch with today’s gospel reading, but the hymn continues, “When sorrows like sea billows roll, / Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’” Whatever my lot – whatever happens to me, whether peace or sorrows, it is well with my soul. That sounds more like willingness to carry a cross.

The second and third verses might surprise us, as they express an understanding of Jesus that some Christians today question. Verse 2 speaks of the “blessed assurance … / That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has paid life and blood for my soul.” Then Verse 3 declares that “my sin … / Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.”

This is known as the Atonement, the belief that Christ died on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven and we could be saved. In other words, God took out his righteous anger at humanity on his own son, punishing him with death by torture as a substitute for all of us. In various forms, atonement theory has been a central part of Christian doctrine, especially among White evangelical Protestants. Lately, this doctrine has fallen out of favor among some Christians, especially as White evangelicalism has come to be associated with racism, nationalism, and violence. But we should remember that the core message of the Atonement is redemption.

I was born and raised in the evangelical faith, left it in my early adulthood, and followed a variety of religious paths leading me, eventually, here. But when I learned the story of how this hymn came to be, I found my heart warming toward my evangelical roots. After all, American evangelicals in the 19th century were social activists, working for the abolition of slavery, reform of education and criminal justice, and economic justice.

The hymn writer Horatio G. Spafford, born in 1828, was a Chicago lawyer and Presbyterian layman. He and his wife, Anna, were friends of the evangelist Dwight L. Moody. The Spaffords knew hard times. In 1870 their only old son died at age 4 of scarlet fever. In October 1871 the Great Fire of Chicago destroyed much of the city, including property the Spaffords had invested in. On that day, nearly 300 people died and around 100,000 lost their homes. Despite their financial loss, Horatio and Anna stepped up to help the people in need.

In 1873, the family planned a European vacation trip. At the last minute, business needs kept Horatio in Chicago, so he sent his wife and four daughters, age 12 to 18 months, aboard the steamship S.S. Ville de Havre, planning to join them a few days later. But on November 22nd the vessel was struck by an iron sailing ship and sank in twelve minutes. Two hundred twenty-six people died, including all four of the Spaffords’ daughters. Anna was among the survivors, and when they landed several days later in Cardiff, South Wales, she sent a telegram to her husband that said, “Saved alone … .” Shortly afterward, Horatio left by ship to join her.

One day during his voyage, the ship’s captain called him out to the bridge. Pointing to his charts, he explained that they were passing over the very spot where the Ville de Havre had sunk, where his daughters had died. The story is told that Horatio then returned to his cabin and wrote the hymn “It is well with my soul,” which begins, in its original version, “When peace like a river attendeth my soul, … .” Other accounts say it was written later, but clearly the voyage was its inspiration. In a letter to Anna’s sister he wrote, “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 out there. They are safe.”

Philip Bliss, born in Pennsylvania in 1838, was a composer, conductor, and gospel singer. An outspoken abolitionist, he served as a liertenant in the Civil War. In 1876 Bliss encountered Spafford’s text and was so impressed by its expression that he composed the music for it. A prolific writer of gospel songs, Bliss usually wrote both the words and the music. This hymn is one of the few exceptions.

And it might be Bliss’s last gospel song. On December 29th of that year, he and his wife, Lucy, were killed in a train wreck in Ashtabula, Ohio. Newspaper accounts of the time reported that Bliss had escaped from the burning train but returned to try to rescue his wife. Neither body was ever found. However, Bliss’s trunk was salvaged, and in it was found an unfinished hymn, which begins, “I know not what awaits me; God kindly veils my eyes … .”

Horatio and Anna Spafford had three more children and, sadly, lost again their only son to illness. Later they moved with their two young daughters and a group of Christian friends to Jerusalem, where they remained, sharing table fellowship and friendship with Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Jews, and caring for the sick and the needy.

The hymn of Spafford and Bliss reminds me of the Mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer recited by the people at the end of every Jewish worship service. It is prayed in honor of lost loved ones, especially parents, yet this prayer does not mention death or loss at all. It is entirely a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

Maybe this is what faith in hard times means. These are hard times. Our world, our nations, our communities all are in peril, and we have our own personal hardships, too. And, yes, in our prayers we can yell and weep and cry out to God for mercy and justice. All of those prayers come from our faith. But in faith we also never stop praising God because, always and entirely, we are held in God’s love.

David R. Holsinger is an award-winning composer, conductor, and music professor at Lee University, in Cleveland, Tennessee. His composition for concert band titled “On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss” was written to honor the retiring principal of a local Christian school and was premiered by the school’s concert band as a gift to the principal in 1989. A few months ago, I had the privilege of performing this piece with 106 other musicians in the Virtual Concert Band, conducted by Laura Campbell, a clarinetist, entrepreneur, and music educator in Melbourne, Australia. I invite you to enjoy it as our offertory music today. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFrpLVXEokI)

In closing, I offer this prayer by Jan Richardson, which was posted by Inward/Outward on September 1st.

That our receiving
may be like breathing:
taking in,
letting go.

That our holding
may be like loving:
taking care,
setting free.

That our giving
may be like leaving:
singing thanks,
moving on.

Jan Richardson, In Wisdom’s Path, p. 34


* When Peace, Like a River (It Is Well with My Soul), The New Century Hymnal, No. 438. Text by Horatio G. Spafford, 1873; alt. Tune: Ville Du Havre, by Philip P. Bliss, 1876.

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