“It Is Well With My Soul”

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“It Is Well With My Soul” is a song I have sung at church since childhood. I heard years ago that it was written by a man in grief after losing members of his family in a ship wreck on the Atlantic Ocean. Yesterday I learned more of his story.

I was on the Library of Congress website, looking for photos of Babylon for our new world history curriculum (just for the record, some Library of Congress photos can be used in publications and others cannot). Library of Congress is not the first place I looked for photos of Babylon, of course, since those materials are mainly about America; but sometimes its a challenge to find pictures of places inside countries experiencing war or political turmoil. Since ancient Babylon is in Iraq, this was the case yesterday. In other words, I was running out of sources and decided to give it a try.

I found some interesting photos taken in Babylon by the “American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Dept.” I have used American Colony photos before and found them fascinating. Some are simply scenes taken in Israel and other places in the Middle East. Others are Biblical events that they have staged. Here’s an example of a photo probably taken to illustrated either the 23rd Psalm or perhaps the Good Shepherd:

Photo of Israel by the American Colony
This photo of Israel by the American Colony has been hand colored.

What I didn’t realize is that there is a connection between these photos and Horatio Spafford, author of “It Is Well With My Soul.” Spafford was a successful attorney and a Presbyterian elder living in Chicago in 1871, when his wife and four daughters set sail for Europe. When their ship sank, his four daughters drowned, and his wife Anna was found unconscious floating on a pole from the ship. A fellow survivor of the ship wreck heard Anna say, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”

Horatio Spafford left Chicago and headed to Europe to bring his wife home. When the ship passed over the site of the ship wreck, the ship captain called Spafford to his cabin and told him that they were passing over the place where his daughters had died. While traveling over that spot, he wrote the words to the hymn. These are the verses I have sung since childhood:

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.

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.


Spafford later wrote to his wife’s half-sister, “”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 there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs.”

Ten years later, Horatio and Ann Spafford and a few other fellow believers left their lives in Chicago and moved to Israel where they founded an “American Colony” in Jerusalem. There they provided charity to local residents for many years. Other believers from Sweden later joined the colony. Around 1898, the colony began a photo department. Those photos and many papers from the Spafford family are now housed in the Library of Congress.

I pray that it is well with your soul today as you rest in the grace and peace of our wonderful Savior.

Peace I leave with you;
My peace I give to you;
not as the world gives do I give to you.
Do not let your heart be troubled,
nor let it be fearful.
John 14:27


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  1. What an amazing piece of history! This hymn has been my top favorite for many years, and while I knew some of the story, I did not know about the Spaffords’ connection with American Colony. If you ever get the chance, Michael W. Smith has a CD he released called “Hymns” which is sold at Cracker Barrel stores. His rendition of “It is Well with My Soul” leaves me with chills!

  2. There is a fantastic Adventures in Odyssey album that tells this story beautifully. I have found Adventures in Odyssey to be a great thing to listen to in the car with the whole family. This album is called “Wooton’s Whirled History – A Mix of Melody Makers” and not only tells the story of “It Is Well With My Soul” but also “Jesus Loves Me”. I have personally listened to it twice already and cry every time. Highly recommend. You can find it here http://www.tyndaledirect.com/Wootons-Whirled-History-Melody-Makers/dp/1589977904#sthash.hDKkrw4a.dpbs.

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