December 1873, Horatio G. Spafford is called to the bridge during an Atlantic crossing. The captain there tells him that calculations have been made and he believes that they are right over the spot in which the passenger, Spafford, was interested. “The ocean is three miles deep here,” he adds. Horatio Spafford thanks the captain and returns to his cabin to be alone with his thoughts, his grief.
Two years prior, in the summer of 1871 a wave of scarlet fever had swept through Chicago and taken the four year old life of the son of the successful attorney and real estate investor. A few months later, in October, a fire had destroyed ten blocks of Chicago real estate, financially ruining the Spaffords.
In 1871, taking the advice of the family physician, Horatio planned a European vacation for the family. He put his wife, Anna, and their four daughters aboard a French liner promising to join them in a few weeks after he had concluded some important business. On November 22 the ship was struck amidships and sank in twelve minutes. Some reports indicate that Anna gathered the four girls with her at the bow of the ship and prayed with them before the twelve year old and two of her sisters were swept overboard. Finally, the waters tore Anna’s eighteen month old child from her arms and left her clinging to debris where she was found by a lifeboat, one of only forty-seven to survive the mishap. Two hundred twenty-six people drowned that day. Some weeks later when Anna was put ashore in Wales, Horatio Spafford received the now famous two word cablegram, “Saved alone.”
It was as he rushed to join his grieving wife that Horatio had been called to the bridge at his request to be told that they were above the spot where his four beloved daughters had perished. Alone in his cabin he penned the words, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll…” Surely no one knew better than this man the violent emotional sways of life as he wrote, “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Philip P. Bliss, a prolific song writer who authored both words and music to many hymns beloved to this day, was taken with Horatio Spafford’s words and composed the music that would accompany those words when they were published in 1876.
Interestingly, Philip Bliss himself would also be involved in a tragic accident in December of 1876. He and his wife were aboard a train that crashed in flames. Although he survived the initial crash, Philip Bliss returned to the flames to save his wife and died in the attempt.
It would be a little over one hundred years later that the song, It is Well With My Soul, originally titled When Peace Like a River would gain special meaning to me. We had gathered in Bethany First Church to say farewell to my own grandmother, Eunice Edna Vawter Black who had gone to heaven on August 28th. During the ceremony it was planned that Eunice’s second daughter, Lula Mae, my mother, would spontaneously lead out in singing that hymn and that the congregation would join in. This was not at all unusual as Lula Mae had most of her adult life not been bashful with her singing. Often when she felt during a church service that a particular hymn should be sung, she would simply begin to sing out and the congregation inevitably would join in. Today somewhere in my memory I can still sometimes hear her lilting soprano voice as the words floated out over that sanctuary, “When peace like a river attendedth my way …” and I can feel the grief rise in my chest. But I also can feel the strong sense of assurance deep within my being that “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Fifteen years later Lula Mae followed her mother home. There was no one there to sing out in the way that she had, but we did the best that we could to honor the memory of her life and her music. I will never sing the words without hearing her voice, and it is well, it is well with my soul.