Saturday, October 5, 2013

"It Is Well With My Soul": An Exposition of My Favorite Hymn (Part 1)

In May of 2011, I was blessed to travel to Israel with the team from Living Waters. It was a ten-day adventure I will never forget. As a result of what, for me, will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, I see the Bible differently, now. In other words, as I read the pages of Scripture I not only see the words, but I can see the places where the greatest historical and spiritual events took place because I've now stood in those places. When I read of the crucifixion of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I now see Golgotha. The image of the skull is still in the side of the rocky hill, with a bustling bus stop now in its shadow. When I read of the Empty Tomb, I picture the Garden in which I walked, a stone's throw from Golgotha. I picture the racing of my heart and the welling up of my tears as I carefully and reverently stepped inside the tomb to see it was, in deed, empty.

The last day of our journey included the trip to the Garden Tomb. There in the Garden, we sat under the preaching of Pastor Philip De Courcy, who also led us in communion. Our last official function for our trip was to enjoy dinner and fellowship at the historic America Colony Hotel, in Jerusalem.

While inside the hotel, I saw hanging on the wall, encased in a glass frame, Horatio Gates Spafford's original, handwritten lyrics to my favorite hymn, It Is Well with My Soul.

Horatio Spafford and his wife, Anna, were considered by those who knew them as devout Christians. They were also friends and supporters of evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Horatio Spafford was a senior partner in a prominent Chicago law firm. Horatio and Anna were well-respected members of Chicago's Christian community and the city's social scene. In spite of appearing to have it all in the eyes of the world, the Spaffords were no strangers to tragedy. In fact, Horatio and Anna experienced so much personal pain and hardship that their own Presbyterian church deemed the family under God's wrathful punishment.

The first significant loss in the lives of the Spaffords was the 1870 death of their four-year-old son, as a result of pneumonia. Within a year's time, Spafford lost a sizable real estate investment as a result of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

In 1873, Horatio decided it was time for his family to enjoy an extended holiday. He chose England because his good friend, Moody, would be there at the same time, preaching to the masses. Business responsibilities detained Spafford for a time, so he sent Anna and their four daughters (ages 11 to 2) on ahead of him. On November 22, 1873, as the Spafford ladies' steam ship crossed the Atlantic it collided with another vessel. 226 people died in the accident, including all four of the Spaffords' daughters. According to the Wikipedia entry for Horatio Spaffard:
"Anna Spafford survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in England, she sent a telegram to Spafford beginning 'Saved alone.' Spafford then sailed to England, going over the location of his daughters' deaths. According to Bertha Spafford Vester, a daughter born after the tragedy, Spafford wrote 'It Is Well with My Soul' on this journey."
Today, in hymnals and song books you will find the song with anywhere from four to six verses. Spafford's original version of the hymn had only four verses and its memorable refrain. Here are the original lyrics:
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, (it is well),
With my soul, (with my soul)
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for 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,
A song in the night, oh my soul!
One can only imagine Spafford's state of mind as he crossed the Atlantic. Being the father of three daughters, I shudder to think where I would be emotionally and spiritually if I lost all three of my beloved girls under any set of circumstances. But to travel the same waters my family last traveled, knowing what kind of death my daughters died in the those same waters, well...

What faith it must have taken, what faith God must have given Horatio Spafford to write the above words on a piece of stationary from a Chicago hotel. Spafford, in the midst of mourning such great loss as he penned the words, surely had no idea that 140 years later "It is Well With My Soul" would be one of the world's best known and most beloved hymns and used in the lives of an untold number of Christians as they worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. But was it faith in Jesus Christ that led Spafford to write what has become my favorite hymn? My research for this article has led me to believe that one should, at the very least, be wary of labeling Horatio and Anna Spafford as born-again followers of Jesus Christ and Christian brethren.

In his detailed article, Horatio Spafford: Not Well With His Soul, Reverend Angus Stewart, pastor of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland, concludes:
"Horatio's story, complete with sanctified oranges, holy sniffles, ascension robes and discarded wedding rings, is fascinating but sad, and much more that is bizarre and instructive could be added.

"But enough has been said to reveal that Horatio Spafford was a rabid Arminian and a universalist, who believed in the salvation of Satan and purgatory (like Roman Catholicism). The hymn writer was also a false prophet, a charismatic and a cult leader. The heretical teaching and utopian community of the 'Branch' and his 'Bride' were not in the way of Christ's peace. It was not well with his soul. Surely, it is far better to sing the 150 inspired Psalms written by true prophets of Jesus Christ, the Branch (Isa. 11:1; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12), for His beloved bride, the church (Eph. 5:23-32)."
It's hard to argue against Reverend Stewart's conclusions regarding the state of Horatio Spafford's soul. But I differ with him when it comes to the singing of the hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul." Yes, to sing the inspired, inerrant, infallible, God-breathed psalms penned by David, Solomon, Moses, the family of Asaph, the sons of Korah, and authors yet unknown is to confidently sing God's Word back to him. But even in doing that, one's personal understanding of the great doctrines of Scripture can be skewed to the point of performing musical eisegesis while singing the correct words.

Spafford's poor, even unbiblical understanding of Scripture could have motivated his hand that moved the pen that allowed the ink to flow upon a wrinkled piece of Brevoort House stationary. Be that as it may, what was going through his head, or through what theological filter he ran the lyrics, we cannot be sure this side of heaven. But one can also consider Spafford's inspiring yet uninspired words through the clear lens of Scripture instead of the scratched and smudged lens of Spafford's heresies. One simply needs to begin each of the song's four original stanzas with the question "isn't it true" to see that regardless of Spafford's heretical theologies, unbiblical practices, and the questionable condition of his soul one can still sing the hymn and worship the Lord in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).

In Part 2 of this article, we will look at the glorious and edifying, biblical truths conveyed in the original four stanzas of Spafford's hymn. In doing so, we will see that the Christian can sing the hymn with a clear conscience, in spirit and truth, with a joyful heart, believing by faith that it is well with his soul.

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