It Is Well With My Soul
Katherine Willis Pershey
Horatio Spafford scribbled the lyrics to It is Well With My Soul on a sheet of hotel stationery while on a ship en route from the United States to England to retrieve his wife. She was the sole member of his family to survive the 1873 shipwreck of the S.S. Ville de Havre.
How could a man possibly pen the line it is well with my soul while sailing across the same waters in which all four of his daughters drowned?
I don’t believe for a minute it was well with Horatio Spafford’s soul. Yet it is precisely this skepticism that causes me to believe this is one of the most faithful and hopeful hymns ever to be written.
I reckon Spafford was in profound pain as he embarked on his awful errand. Grief comes in relentless waves; sorrows can knock you off your feet just as readily as the sea billows they approximate. Between onsets of agony there are moments of numbness, but there’s no relief, no respite. The unthinkable fact is lurking nearby, ready to level you again.
But It is Well With My Soul is not a denial of suffering, nor a suppression of grief. The refrain is positively drenched in pain and sorrow.
This is how you sing It Is Well With My Soul: You sing it with a tremble in your voice. You sing it with a broken heart. You sing it without a whiff of certainty that what you sing is true, but nevertheless you sing as though your life depends upon the truth of the song.
No pain shall be mine, you sing, and there it is again: the catch in your throat. This time you might lose it completely. You might not be able to circle back to the penultimate refrain. But you have to. You must. You want to sing the line about the trumpet resounding, because therein lies the hope of redemption. Even though you can’t yet hear it, you pray that some kid is practicing his scales even now, preparing his embouchure to play the holy interval that will make the pain stop. Not just your pain. All pain, absorbed and transformed and ultimately undone by God.
I don’t always believe the hymns I sing. There are few hymns I want to believe in more than this one. Even so, it is well with my soul.
Katherine Willis Pershey is an associate minister of the First Congregational Church in Western Springs, Illinois and the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change and Very Married: Field Notes on Love & Fidelity (forthcoming September 2016). Her work has appeared in the Christian Century, the Art of Simple, and several anthologies. She and her husband, Benjamin, have two daughters.