I have played piano at church since I was eight years old and knew only two songs, What a Friend We Have in Jesus and Bringing in the Sheaves. Through the years I have either sung first soprano in the choir or played piano for church services, depending on the size of the church I’m attending–and its needs. Currently, I’m in a very small church, and both singing in the choir and playing for evening services. My repertoire has greatly expanded to include concert versions of the grand old hymns we love. Great is Thy Faithfulness. In the Garden. The Church Is One Foundation, and many more.
Music is one of my favorite ways to worship. Both the melody and the lyrics speak to my soul. That is often the way with musicians. But the lay person who knows nothing of music is left to appreciate only the beautiful sound of organ or piano.
When I became pianist for Sunday evening services at the little church my grandfather built, I decided to share the history of the preludes I play. Some might call my brief exposition a miniature course in music appreciation, but I believe giving the background of a song also increases the listener’s faith.
Most of our great hymns are based on scripture. Some have murky origins, especially the spirituals such as Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. But some of the truly magnificent songs have a history so compelling it will bring the listener to tears.
It Is Well with My Soul is just such a song. Both words and music were composed by Horatio Spafford from Chicago. He had a thriving business, a wife, and five children. His life was perfect. He was the envy of all his friends.
Then 1871 came along. He lost his son to pneumonia and his business to the now-famous Chicago fire. His family was devastated, his wife cast into deep mourning.
In 1873 Horatio decided to send Anna and their remaining children–four daughters–on a holiday to Europe so they could recover from their grief. They sailed on the French ocean liner, the Ville du Havre. His plan was to join them later.
A few days into the ocean voyage, the Ville du Havre collided with an iron-hulled Scottish ship, the Loch Earn, putting all 313 passengers in danger. Anna and the girls hurried to the top deck where they prayed for God to deliver them. They also prayed that if deliverance was not in His will, He would give them the courage to endure.
Four minutes later, the ship sank, carrying 226 passengers. A sailor rowing a small boat spotted a woman floating on a piece of wreckage. She and the other survivors were put aboard a ship that landed nine days later in Wales.
Anna was one of those survivors. She wired her husband: Saved alone. What shall I do?
Horatio immediately boarded a ship to Wales. When they came to the spot where all his children had drowned, the captain took Horatio to the top deck. “This is where the tragedy happened,” he said. Horatio stood for a moment over the spot where his four daughters died then went back to his cabin and wrote the amazing hymn, It Is Well with My Soul.
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
Horatio and Anna had three more children, but lost another to pneumonia. His daughter, Beth Spafford Vester, said that her father kept the telegram from Anna framed in his office.
Saved alone. What shall I do?
The message served as reminder to him that no matter what happens in life, God, who put the stars above and the ocean beneath, is always there, a constant port in every storm, a Father who loves us so much He sent His only Son to die that we might be saved.
God is good.