The Story Behind “It Is Well With My Soul”

Hi, friends. These posts explore the backstories of well-known hymns. I pick a theme for Christmas and Easter, but random ones like this appear throughout the year. Here’s the story behind “It Is Well With My Soul.”

[“Worship Music Mini, another version of these posts, are discontinued for now. I could write why and how the format of these posts has changed over time, but long story short, I am constantly trying to adapt and improve.]

“It Is Well With My Soul” by Horatio Spafford (Lyrics Only)

Horatio Spafford

Horatio Spafford, an American lawyer and Presbyterian elder, penned these lyrics in a time when I definitely wouldn’t have expected all to be well with his soul!

The Great Fire of Chicago in 1871 had destroyed much of his business investments. Scarlet fever took his four-year-old son around the same time. By 1873, the economy was experiencing a downturn which further hurt Spafford’s business. But he decided that the family should take a vacation…probably to take their minds off their struggles. They ventured to England because their good friend, evangelist D.L. Moody, was there travelling on a preaching tour.

Business matters delayed Spafford, so he sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him with the best intention to meet them overseas. On November 22, 1873, their steamship, Ville Du Havre, was hit by an iron sailing vessel. 226 people died–including Spafford’s four daughters. He soon received a telegram from his wife that began with the sentence “Saved alone.”

Mrs. Spafford’s Telegram

This man lost five young children within a couple years. I can’t fathom his grief. Unbelievably enough, Spafford wrote the lyrics to this song when he later sailed to England through the place where his daughters died.

Allegedly, their church blamed their tragedies on sin, so they became outsiders. [Ever read the book of Job, people?!] They formed their own Christian group called “the Overcomers.” They wound up having more children and moving to Jerusalem. They created a group there called “the American Colony” that participated in philanthropic work for Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.

I can’t find a reliable source that explains exactly what Spafford was thinking when he wrote these lyrics. However, I’ve run across some articles that portray Spafford, the Overcomers, and the American Colony negatively–exposing heretical beliefs, for example, and even implying that Spafford was a sociopath. Since the hymn is long divided from a specific group of people, I think we should simply appreciate the song as is, but here’s an article about the controversy. I have to be that person and point out that “the sky” is not our final destination according to the Bible. [Spafford seems to correct his 5th verse theological error in the 6th verse, maybe?]

I’m going to highlight my favorite lyrics.


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, (it is well)
With my soul, (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!

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!

Though it skips more of the verses than I’d like, this is still the most beautiful version I personally have heard. Feel free to recommend other versions in the comments.

Thanks for reading! Did you find this backstory crazy? Have you ever experienced a season in life like Spafford where it wasn’t just raining–it was pouring? Let me know in the comments.


26 responses to “The Story Behind “It Is Well With My Soul””

  1. Love this song! Never knew the back story, but these words have soothed my soul many times. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s certainly a beautiful hymn which encapsulates Christian hope and the peace Christians find in Jesus in a wonderful way. Thanks for sharing some interesting insights into its history!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. Glad you liked the historical insights, Steven!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the 5th verse before. I’d heard the backstory of this song before. We’re singing it this Sunday in church.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Must be a “God wink!” (aka serendipitous coincidence where God seems to be “winking” at us)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Just wow. Crazy amount of loss – yet “it is well with my soul!” Amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know right! Reminds me of Job.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Lily. This is a wonderful post. It Is Well With My Soul has always been one of my favorite hymns. Personally, I believe the Holy Spirit guided Haratio Spafford as he wrote this. No doubt this hymn has comforted many during trying times. It has comforted me. It has inspired me also.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pam! I agree that the Holy Spirit must have guided him in writing these words because it’s just so irrational that he could have that mindset at that time…but with God, all things are possible.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Each time I read or hear about this story, I stop moaning about my situation

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yep! It could always be worse. We should have an attitude of gratitude!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for sharing this, Lily. This and other hymns are inspirational because of the backgrounds from which they were written.
    There is an unknown hymn written a few years by a talented musician here in Georgia, who lost her husband through a difficult illness. Where is My Joy is her witness of the Lord’s presence during that time. I have been in contact with her, hoping to have a recording to share. Blessings for your week-end. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Fran, and blessings to you as well! I am eager to hear the song your friend wrote. Grief often produces beautiful art because that emotion is so intense and authentic.


  8. Lily, the story behind this song is such an encouraging one. I don’t normally link uninvited, but I once put together a little something around this song. This is my wife’s favorite Hymn, also. Good post, thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same for me, Wally. I will check out your post once I catch up on a few things!


  9. I love the back story to hymns, many were written from painful experiences ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Same here and so true! Pain often produces beauty; funny how that works. ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love this song.. I have heard some of the background. I think of the quote ” God want put on us any more than we can stand” and I know God is always with us no matter what. It is Faith that brings us through. Our Faith in God, knowing he is there..


  11. This is definitely one of my favorite hymns. When we know all is well with our soul there is peace in the storms of life. And yes, I have had my storms but never without my Savior.


  12. WOW! I learned SO much today!!!! Five kids! All of those things!

    Thanks for sharing! This was very well done and in depth. I can only imagine your research. 🙂 Thanks for sharing.


  13. This is one of my favorite hymn stories and one of my favorite hymns. I have seen many congregations come alive as they declare boldly in song “it is well with my soul”.


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