“It Is Well” Hymn Story

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The story behind the hymn “It Is Well” is familiar to many people, but worth sharing again. I find it inspiring and hope you do too.

Born in New York in 1828, Horatio Gates Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer and real estate investor. People knew him as a committed Christ-follower and supporter of the evangelist D.L. Moody. Horatio and his wife Anna were wealthy and prominent members of Chicago society.

Just as “the rain falls on the just and unjust” (Matthew 5.45), Horatio and Anna were not free of pain. In the late 1860s, their only son died of scarlet fever. When the great Chicago fire incinerated the city in 1871, it wiped out their real estate holdings.

Two years later, the Spaffords decided to take a trip to Europe. They wanted to take their four daughters on vacation, and Horatio wanted to help D.L. Moody, who was leading some spiritual revivals in England. At the last minute, Horatio had a business obligation. He felt like he needed to attend to it but told Anna to take the girls on ahead. He planned to join them a few days later.

On November 22, the ship with Anna and the girls collided with another ship and sank in few minutes.

None of their daughters survived.

When she reached at Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent Horatio a telegram with two simple words, “Saved alone.”

Horatio jumped aboard another ship to join Anna. At one point while crossing the Atlantic, the captain called him to the bridge. He said, “A careful reckoning has been made, and I believe we are now passing the place where the ship with your daughters on it was wrecked. The water here is three miles deep.” [i]

Horatio returned to his cabin. I cannot imagine his grief. But he wrote a verse to describe his feelings:

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.

The story of Horatio Spafford’s inspiration to write “It Is Well” is meaningful to me. Even when things are at the worst, God offers peace and comfort for our souls.


[i] Randy Petersen, Be Still My Soul: The Inspiring Stories behind 175 of the Most-Loved Hymns (1973), 153.

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