Spafford wrote the lyrics in 1873, and Bliss supplied the music in 1876. This wonderful piece of music came from tragedies difficult to imagine. Not everyone’s faith is shipwrecked when tragedy strikes.
Horatio Gates Spafford (1828-1888), Lyricist
Horatio Gates Spafford was born October 20, 1828 in Troy, NY. He was a lawyer and elder in the Presbyterian Church for a time. On September 5, 1861, he married Anna Larsen of Stavanger, Norway. The family suffered a major financial setback in the Chicago fire of 1871. In 1873, Horatio thought it would be good for Anna to visit Europe for her health, so he sent her and their four daughters to Europe ahead of him.
His wife and four children (Anna, Margaret, Elizabeth, and Tanetta) were sailing on French S. S. Ville Du Havre when it collided on November 22, 1873 with the British ship Lochearn. The ship sank in 12 minutes, and Anna was found unconscious by the crew of Lochearn, which was also in danger of sinking. Fortunately, another ship, Trimountain, was able to rescue them. Nine days later, December 1, 1873, Anna sent her husband a telegram: “Saved alone. What shall I do.”—they lost all four of their daughters ages 11 to 2. Horatio Spafford wrote the poem as he sailed the same waterway across the Atlantic Ocean to join his wife. Bliss offered to set the poem to music, which is “It Is Well With My Soul”. The song was debuted in November 1876 by P. P. Bliss to a crowd of over 1,000 ministers in Chicago. A month later Bliss and his wife would be killed in a tragic train wreck.
Mr. and Mrs. Spafford would have three more children: Horatio Goertner Spafford (died of scarlet fever at 3 years old), Bertha Hedges Spafford, and Grace Spafford. After all the tragedies, his wife Anna, left the church to worship independently in a movement dubbed “The Overcomers” by the Press. In August 1881 the Spaffords decided to join an effort to set up an American colony in Jerusalem. They adopted Jacob Eliahu who was a 13-year-old boy who discovered the famous Siloam inscription in 1880. Horatio Spafford perished on October 16, 1888 of malaria in Jerusalem and is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem. His wife would remain there until her death in 1923.
Philip Paul Bliss (1838-1876), Composer
Philip Paul Bliss was born July 9, 1838 in a log cabin in Clearfield County, PA. His family was religious and devoted to music. His family moved to Kinsman, OH in 1844, but returned to Pennsylvania in 1847. He left home at age 11 and worked in sawmills. Most of his education was from the Bible by his mother. He picked up schooling when he could, and by the age 17, he was qualified to teach and be a schoolmaster. He joined the Baptist Church during a revival meeting near Elk Run, PA.
He married Lucy J. Young on June 1, 1859 when they lived in Rome, PA. His home in Rome, PA is now the Philip P. Bliss Gospel Songwriters Museum. He went on to do traveling teaching of music. He was encouraged to pursue a career in music which he did. He was influenced by W. B. Bradbury to become a music teacher. He was employed by Root and Cady which were music publishers in Chicago, and he published his first hymn in 1864. Through his singing schools and other works, he gained the reputation as a speaker, song leader, and vocal soloist. One source stated his vocal range was from low D-flat to high A-flat. He published his first songbook, Gospel Songs, in 1874, then he began publishing Gospel Hymns working with Ira Sankey in 1875. He partnered with D. W. Whittle who also wrote Memoirs of Philip P. Bliss in 1877. He was known to work with the Baptist Church, Methodist Church, and Presbyterian Church which he was converted to by his wife.
Bliss has also composed: “Almost Persuaded”, “Hallelujah! What A Savior!”, “I Bring My Sins to Thee”, “I Gave My Life for Thee”, “I Will Sing of My Redeemer”, “Let The Lower Lights Be Burning”, “More Holiness Give Me”, and “Wonderful Words of Life”. The music for “It Is Well With My Soul” was entitled Ville du Havre, the ship on which Spafford’s four daughters were killed.
His end was also tragic as both he and his wife were killed in the Pacific Express train wreck near Ashtabula, OH. Bliss could have escaped, but he refused to leave his wife’s side as she was pinned by the wreckage when a fire broke out. They along with approximately 90 other people perished on December 19, 1876. He was 38 years of age. Their two sons were left behind from the journey. There is no grave for Mr. and Mrs. P. P. Bliss, but there was a monument erected in Rome, PA in their honor. There is also a monument for the unidentified dead of the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster erected in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Ashtabula, OH.
It Is Well With My Soul
It is reported that Horatio Spafford was notified by the captain of the ship when they were passing over the wreckage where his four daughters had died, that he wrote to his wife’s 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.” He had hope! Hope in the midst of such great tragedy!
Tragedies will come in life, but the question remains: are we prepared for when tragedies come? It is said that Robert Owen, skeptic, remarked to Alexander Campbell that he was not afraid of death. The two debated in 1829 in Cincinnati, Ohio; but before the debate Robert Owen visited Bethany to meet Alexander Campbell. Owen commented that “There is one advantage I have over the Christian—I am not afraid to die. Most Christians have fear in death, but if some few items of my business were settled, I should be perfectly willing to die at any moment.” Alexander Campbell responded, “You say you have no fear in death; have you any hope in death?” Alexander Campbell pointed to an ox on his farm showing Owen that his view was no different than that of an ox’s view—neither had fear nor hope in death.
Are you prepared to meet your Creator? The wise man wrote, “Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, Or the golden bowl is broken, Or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, Or the wheel broken at the well. Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:6–8 NKJV). Remember, the thesis of the book is a life lived without God is a life of futility, emptiness, and vanity!
Is it well with your soul?
“Anna Tobine Larsen Øglende Spafford.” No Pages. Cited 25 March 2018. Online: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/52261460/anna-tobine_larsen-spafford.
“Family Tragedy - The American Colony in Jerusalem.” No Pages. Cited 25 March 2018. Online: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/americancolony/amcolony-family.html.
“Horatio Gates Spafford.” No Pages. Cited 25 March 2018. Online: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/13842045/horatio-gates-spafford.
“Horatio Spafford.” No Pages. Cited 25 March 2018. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horatio_Spafford.
“Philip Bliss.” No Pages. Cited 25 March 2018. Online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Bliss.
“Philip Paul Bliss, Sr.” No Pages. Cited 25 March 2018. Online: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/6686193/philip-paul-bliss.