When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll: Horatio’s Hymn Revisited

Horatio Gates Spafford. Photo by Krikorian Studios, Jerusalem, 1880s. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress)

Horatio Gates Spafford. Photo by Krikorian Studios, Jerusalem, 1880s. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress)

It is amazing how many Protestant and Evangelical Christians in the West are acquainted with the name Horatio Gates Spafford, and especially the story of how, spurred by a profound personal tragedy, he penned the words of the much-loved, inspirational hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”. Not so many, however, know “the rest of the story,” unaware of how, out of the grief and subsequent searching that he and his wife Anna experienced, an unusual community grew and thrived for several decades in the Holy City of Jerusalem. It is fair to say, I think, that both expressions–the hymn, and later the community–sprang in some measure from a common root, that of wrenching personal trials. In any event, here is the account of how Horatio’s famous hymn came to be, plus bits of context and analysis that will hopefully shed additional light on what is arguably the most enduring facet of Mr. Spafford’s legacy.

As the 1870s began, Horatio Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer, and enjoyed all the trappings such a life offered. With a growing family–a wife and four little daughters–and a comfortable home in the fashionable suburb of Lake View, he was respected as a churchman and a community leader, and also heavily invested in the city’s speculative real estate market. Then, a series of events conspired to shatter the family’s cozy existence. First the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and then the economic crisis known as the Panic of 1873, left Spafford in difficult financial straits, mostly unknown to his wife Anna. In response to the fire, Horatio and Anna nonetheless participated in the relief efforts for the victims, charitable work that foreshadowed their future life in Jerusalem.

Despite these setbacks and demands, late in 1873 the Spaffords planned an extended vacation trip to Europe, reserving passage on the luxurious French liner SS Ville du Havre. When Horatio was detained by business at the last minute—an offer on one of his investments—they decided that the rest of the family would sail ahead as planned, and he would join them later in France.

However, on November 22nd, 1873 one of the great unexplained tragedies of the sea took place: About 2 a.m., on a clear, calm night on the open sea, the Ville du Havre was rammed and nearly cut in two by the iron-hulled English sailing vessel Loch Earn. Amid the confusion and hysteria on deck, the passengers and crew found many of the lifeboats and life preservers stuck fast and unusable, everything having been newly-painted. In only 12 minutes, the Ville du Havre broke apart and sank beneath the waves. As the waters swirled about her, Anna Spafford felt her four little girls, the oldest 11 years old, torn from her grasp by the turbulence and the numbing cold. After an hour Anna found herself in a boat, bruised and sick with seawater, but safe. She had been found floating unconscious, they said, supported by a piece of debris. She knew instinctively that all of her children were gone. Indeed, from the entire ship 226 had been lost and only 57 saved.

“The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre”, Currier & Ives engraving. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

“The Sinking of the Steamship Ville du Havre”, Currier & Ives engraving. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE


Once ashore in Wales, Anna’s brief, poignant telegram to Horatio conveyed the profound tragedy they had suffered: “Saved alone. What shall I do?” Spafford cabled back for her to proceed to Paris where they had friends and he would join her as soon as possible.

Anna’s telegram: “Saved alone…” (Source: U.S. LIbrary of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

Anna’s telegram: “Saved alone…” (Source: U.S. Library of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

Hastening to join his wife, Spafford took a train to New York and embarked on the trans-Atlantic crossing. In mid-ocean, when the captain informed him that they were passing near the site of the shipwreck, Spafford retired to his cabin. There, on a sheet of hotel stationery from his last night spent in Chicago, he penned the words he has always been most remembered for:

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 With My Soul”, original manuscript. (Source: U.S. LIbrary of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

“It Is Well With My Soul”, original manuscript. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

Horatio was a writer of poems and hymn-texts throughout most of his life, but so inspired were these particular lines, and the three stanzas which followed, that Spafford set them down in a single, unaltered draft, almost exactly as they have appeared in countless Christian hymnals down through the years. [For a critical assessment of this widely accepted version of the hymn’s writing, see my extended comment below.]

It seems that Horatio Spafford—faced with such great loss, and wrestling with the question of “Why?”—had already begun to emerge with a faith in the ultimate goodness of the Almighty. The hymn, as an expression of a sublime confidence in God that transcends all circumstances, has had an incalculable impact over all the years since.

The next two stanzas read:

Tho Satan should buffet, tho trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control:

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate

And hath shed his own blood for my soul.

My sin — O the bliss of this glorious thought! –

My sin, not in part, but the whole

Is nailed to His cross and I bear it no more.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

The final stanza (of the four in common use) reflects what would become a central focus of the Spaffords’ biblical-prophetic ethos: a vision of the End Times and the Second Coming of Christ–which indeed the Spaffordite group came to believe was imminent and would unfold before them on the Mount of Olives. Actually, it was very common for hymns of that day to conclude with such sentiments: visions of heaven, resurrection and/or the Return of Christ. The trumpet image is drawn from 2 Corinthians 15:52, and the phrase “Even so” comes from Revelation 22:20 (KJV). The stanza reads:

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.

There are actually two other known stanzas, both apparently added later and almost never published in hymnals. When they are included among the documented lyrics, as here, the two are usually inserted as stanzas four and five (for a total of six). Of these two additional stanzas, the second one (#5 of 6) is a bit superfluous, introducing the End Times imagery but not quite resonating with the same force as the rest of the text. The other stanza, however (#4 of 6), is documented in the 1950 memoir of Bertha Spafford Vester, the Spaffords’ daughter who came to Jerusalem with them in 1881 at age three. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that this stanza was sung by the members of the American Colony in Jerusalem  (Our Jerusalem, p. 46). Here again, the language perhaps does not quite flow like the other verses (the first line, based on Philippians 1:21, is undeniably awkward)–but is there something else here as well? The stanza goes:

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.

Now, I had always reckoned that the “sea billows” of the first stanza was the hymn’s only possible (but still indirect) reference to the shipwreck. But here, the line If Jordan above me shall roll  I find curious and quite striking. The idea of crossing over Jordan (as in the Bible) is, of course, a well-known metaphor for the experience of death: the end of one’s burdensome wanderings and the joyous entry into a Promised Land. Then there is the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (originating with Charles Wesley and later appropriated within American slave culture as a coded message for escape). In fact, the writers of many hymns and songs have used the Jordan as a word-picture. Spafford’s turn of phrase, though, is rather different. Think about it: If the “Jordan”, a river, is rolling “above me”– then where am ? The logical answer is: under the water. Then, in the very next line, “death” ensues, depicted as painless and peaceful. One runs the risk of being too analytical here, of course. On the other hand, knowing the larger, tragic context of the original hymn’s writing, the image could be viewed as a rather dark and chilling one. The fact that this stanza was sung by Colony members in Jerusalem suggests to me that the words indeed pointed somehow to the Spaffords’ profound tragedy, the drowning of their four daughters.

It occurs to me also that another hymn (bear with me!)–an earlier one, and widely published–contains very similar language. Of this hymn’s final stanzas–which unfold themes of darkness, grief, sorrow, death, and ultimate release–one contains the line when death’s cold, sullen stream shall o’er me rollThe hymn is “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”, published already in the 1830s, and thus definitely known to Spafford. It remains a standard in Protestant hymnals to this day. Now, thought questions: Did this earlier hymn inform Spafford’s poetic sensibilities? Did publishers think Spafford’s language too similar and thus reject that particular stanza of his? Or, did they perhaps judge his imagery too pointed and intense, and for that reason relegate it to obscurity?

The evangelists and musicians in Moody’s circle; Philip P. Bliss, upper right. Period poster. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

The evangelists and musicians in Moody’s circle; Philip P. Bliss, upper right. Period poster. (Source: U.S. Library of Congress) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE

In any event, within a few years of it’s writing, Spafford’s text was set to music by Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876), who gave his tune the name Ville du Havre, after the ship that had carried so many to their deaths. It is interesting that Bliss and Spafford in fact knew each other, with the common connection being the Chicago-based evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Not only was Spafford a friend and early financial backer of the up-and-coming preacher–at a time when Moody was still supporting himself selling shoes–but, as Spafford’s daughter Bertha wrote, “the group of evangelists and musicians who gathered about Mr. Moody often met at our home in Lake View for conferences and discussions” (Vester, Our Jerusalem). Horatio Spafford was also active in Moody’s jailhouse ministry, would preach on occasion, and once traveled to England to assist in one of Moody’s crusades.

The musician Philip Bliss was associated with Moody as early as 1869 and became a full-time evangelist in 1874, so he–along with the likes of Ira D. Sankey and George C. Stebbins–was very much a part of the same Chicago evangelical milieu as Spafford. “It Is Well With My Soul”–Spafford’s text and Bliss’ tune–were first published in Gospel Hymns No. 2 (1876), compiled by Sankey and Bliss in collaboration (the hymn appeared as No. 76 and included only the four stanzas in common use today). That same year, 1876, Bliss himself died a tragic death when both he and his wife perished in a train wreck in Ohio; he was only 38 years old.

Moody, for his part, was involved with Horatio and Anna at various critical junctures. During the Spaffords’ journey home to America following the shipwreck, Moody–in the middle of revival meetings in Edinburgh–came and met them in London in order to offer consolation to his old friends. At that time he also urged Anna, as an antidote to her grief, to involve herself in his relief work back in Chicago, and on returning she did just that, taking charge of all of Moody’s women’s activities for the city. Years later, after Horatio’s death from malaria in 1888, Dwight L. Moody even came and visited the family in Jerusalem to once again offer comfort. (This, long after the Spaffords had departed from orthodox Evangelical theology–the very underpinnings of Moody’s ardent preaching.) Bertha Vester recalls: “I remember Mr. Moody’s coming to the American Colony in Jerusalem after Father’s death. He was a thickset, short, and highly emotional man, who always wore frock coats. With my sister Grace on his knee, he wept unashamed for the loss of his friend until two pools of water were formed on the floor by his tears” (Our Jerusalem).

* * *


(1)  A concert here in North Carolina not long ago included a very nice version of the hymn-tune. The piece, which was new to me, is an arrangement for symphonic band by the prolific American composer David Holsinger. The following Wikipedia notes regarding this work just underscore how widely popular both the text and the tune truly are. In a way that may be hard to fathom, Horatio’s hymn and its message are today deeply woven into the fabric of American culture, and of Protestant-Evangelical expression world-wide:

On a Hymnsong of Philip Bliss (1989) is Holsinger’s translated American hymn “It is Well with my Soul”. It is his largest selling work and has been used in several televised memorial performances in recent years, including commemorative services for the Challenger astronauts, Ronald Reagan, and the fallen heroes of the American armed forces.

To hear a performance of this popular piece, CLICK HERE.

* * *

(2)  Out of sheer curiosity, I saw how many “hits” the hymn title produced via searches on Google and YouTube, which, for better or worse, is seemingly the measure of anything’s importance in this day and age. Well, in each case it was 400,000-plus! At the risk of over-stating the point, this hymn is more widely known and deeply cherished than many people would ever imagine, especially those not steeped in the Protestant-Evangelical ethos (disclosure: I am).

* * *

(3)  In the course of researching this article, I encountered several on-line sources that mistakenly place the death of the Spaffords’ only male child, Horatio, in 1870 or 1871. Four-year-old Horatio actually died in 1880, seven years after the shipwreck, of scarlet fever. Apparently, someone thought that by changing the date he/she could fashion a more dramatic narrative–as if that were possible.

* * *

(4)  In the wake of the tragic 2015 shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, I had occasion to watch most of the televised funeral service of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims, on 26 JUN 2015. President Obama, of course, attended and delivered the eulogy. But as I watched, knowing the role that Horatio’s hymn (or the hymn-tune) has played in public memorial services over the years, I couldn’t help wondering if it might be used on this occasion. For one thing, I wasn’t sure about the hymn’s role or popularity within African American faith expression. Well, it was used. At 3:28 (that’s 3 hours, 28 minutes!) into the amazing service–just before the “invocation”!–the worship leader recited the first two stanzas and then led the crowd in the singing of the hymn, including a spirited, hand-clapping coda. See here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OkItXdGNxY

* * *

(5)  On August 15th, 2015, I attended Garrison Keillor’s “America the Beautiful Tour”, which came to the Brevard Music Center here in western North Carolina. For any who may not be acquainted with his work and style, Mr. Keillor has hosted the weekly public radio variety program “A Prairie Home Companion”– two hours, live — for most of the past 25 years. Through his mix of homespun humor and music, always drawing heavily on his small-town Minnesota upbringing, Keillor displays a knack for tapping into quintessential, broadly-shared American experience. Anyway, the intermission of the show I attended had Garrison Keillor strolling the aisles, microphone in hand, leading the audience in singing a capella a host of well-known songs, and especially hymns. Of course, Horatio’s Hymn figured in the mix, two stanzas worth. I was not surprised. [*see my comment below]

* * *

(6)  Rather late in the game (2018), it has dawned on me (with some help!) the probable source of the titular phrase “It is well”, and, recalling that Spafford was steeped in the Bible, it should not surprise us to find its origins there, in scripture. Interestingly, the words are uttered by a biblical character who, like the Spaffords, had just had a young child snatched away by Death. The account is found in 2 Kings 4, in the cycle of Elisha stories: the tale of the Shunammite woman. Do you recall that she and her husband provided regular hospitality to the travelling prophet at their home at Shunam (probably modern Sulam, at the eastern foot of Moreh), going so far as to build him special quarters, and that Elisha promised that she, though advanced in years, would soon conceive and bear a son? She does, of course, the years pass, and one day the boy falls mysteriously ill in the field and is soon dead. That same day, the woman instinctively sets out for the prophet’s base on Carmel, and as she approaches, Elisha’s servant is sent out to inquire: “Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well.” When she encounters the prophet, however, Elisha recognizes immediately that “her soul is vexed within her.” The rest of the narrative recounts the process of restoring the boy to life, ultimately through a kind of transfer-of-life ritual, and ending with Elisha’s instruction: “Take up thy son”.  BUT, going back, what are we to make of the woman’s “It is well”–in the midst of her obvious turmoil and grief? Why the seeming disconnect? Was the woman lying? Was she covering up, trying to put a good face on things, to fool others–or herself, perhaps? OR… is it possible she indeed possessed some grounded, bedrock sense of well-being, one capable of transcending even the most dire circumstances? Well, one day I hope to be able to ask her. And Horatio.

* * *

(7)  Christmas, 2018. And on it goes… The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as part of their holiday special televised on PBS, presented a 16-minute dramatized and musical version of the story of the Spafford family, Horatio’s famous hymn, and the impact of the American Colony in Jerusalem. Offered as an inspirational piece, the stage action is narrated live by British actor Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey). For all the tear-jerking sentimentality, it’s rather well-done and worth a look.

* * *

(8) Spring, 2020.  The COVID-19 global pandemic has underscored anew the power of this timeless, comforting hymn — Horatio’s hymn. See my special post HERE.

* * *

This is one of a series of posts highlighting facets of American Colony history. For more background on the Colony phenomenon, see my on-line article “Jerusalem’s  American Colony and it’s Photographic Legacy“.

This entry was posted in American Colony, JERUSALEM, Jerusalem People, Religion, VIDEOS and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll: Horatio’s Hymn Revisited

  1. Outremer says:

    Want more? Try this soaring arrangement premiered in 2011 by the Duke University Chapel Choir (credits appear at the end of the video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAhZHZom8Do&list=PLKOWfNOn7-OEL2tUKQrLwywboiAfhQRkK -tp

  2. Michele Jeanette says:

    This was very moving to read. I visited only to research a few, key words of the hymn and came away with a much greater, much more appreciable understanding of its inspiration.

    • Tom Powers says:

      Michele: Thanks for your interest and your comments. If you want more on the Spafford family and the American Colony in Jerusalem, see under the “Articles” menu above. All the best. –tp

  3. Tom Powers says:

    At long last, an alternative account of the time and place of Spafford’s writing the hymn-text has come to my attention, one which calls into question the mid-ocean shipboard scene of Spafford penning the words in the immediate aftermath of the 1873 shipwreck (as recounted in my post above). Here is a quote from the autobiography of Ira D. Sankey, a member of Dwight L. Moody’s ministry team, who was well acquainted with the Spaffords in the 1870s:

    “In 1876 […] I was entertained at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Spafford for a number of weeks. During that time [emphasis supplied] Mr. Spafford wrote the hymn “It is well with my soul,” in commemoration of the death of his children.” (SOURCE: Ira D. Sankey, My Life and Sacred Songs (1906), p.127)

    Other bits of relevant evidence: The meeting of Spafford (and his traveling companion) with the ship’s captain, on reaching the site of the disastrous shipwreck during their trans-Atlantic passage, is actually well attested, in two different primary sources. One is a letter Horatio wrote to his sister-in-law during the trip a few days after passing the spot of the tragedy. The other is the memoir of a survivor of the shipwreck, a French priest who met with Spafford in France on the latter’s arrival there; his book, apparently published within weeks of the sinking (it’s dated 1873), recounts Spafford’s story of meeting with the captain. The thing is, neither account makes any mention of the hymn being written at that time. (For more on this, see Anna’s House: The American Colony in Jerusalem by Odd Karsten Tveit, 2011, pp. 43-44.)

    The source of the standard, received version — which indeed is universally embraced (even begrudgingly by critical researchers) — is the 1950 memoir of the Spafford’s daughter, Bertha Spafford Vester– Our Jerusalem. Remember that she was recounting something of which she had no direct, firsthand knowledge — she was not even born until 1878 — and writing nearly 80 years after the events described. Thus, we have to at least entertain the notion that her version is encumbered by heavy layers of family lore which may not hew strictly to the historical facts. Indeed, it’s entirely likely that it was a story she heard told over and over again as a child, in the context of the American Colony community, and had absolutely no reason to doubt. (The same goes for certain other stories recounted in her book, which upon close scrutiny turn out to be dramatized or highly embellished.)

    As for Sankey’s account, it’s worth noting that his memoir was published near the end of his life, some 30 years after the events described, and also that he had to reconstruct the work hurriedly, from memory, the original manuscript having been lost in a fire. Still, from a purely objective standpoint, Mr. Sankey’s spare, straightforward account cannot be dismissed out-of-hand — he was there and was well acquainted with the people involved.

    To be sure, I want the dramatic shipboard writing of the hymn to be “the truth”, but… well, YOU decide…

    TOM POWERS / April 2020

  4. Tom Powers says:

    Humorist GARRISON KEILLOR, of “A Prairie Home Companion” fame, posted the following as part of his regular online column, Dec. 17th, 2021:

    I live for pleasure, whenever it pokes its head up, such as during a show in Holland, Michigan, in a basketball arena, where I found an audience of older folks who can sing “America” from memory and also “America The Beautiful” and “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad” and “The Sloop John B.” I was walking among them, leading the singing, singing bass, and I took a big chance and launched into “It Is Well With My Soul” — and they all knew it and sang it with feeling! Thanks to the religion of sports, which is slowly devouring Sundays, Protestantism is fading fast in America and in a decade or two, when the churches are turned into condos except a few that become museums and my people are meeting in caves as they did back in the Roman Empire, you won’t ever find a thousand people like the crowd in Michigan that knew the words to “It Is Well With My Soul.”

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