Summary: Sermon #4 in the Hymn-writers series deals with Horatio Spafford and Phillip Bliss, the two men who wrote words and music to "It is well with my soul."
It is well with my Soul: Bliss and Spafford
So far we have looked at Hymn Writers like Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton, William Cowper, Fanny Crosby, and Ira Sankey. We have discovered, that these great hymn writers of the 1700’s and 1800’s changed the style of music that was being written, discovered their musical creativity after conversion experiences that had a huge impact on their abilities to pour forth with new hymns, overcame severe limitations to create their music, and dedicated their lives to full time ministry for the Lord.
The two men we will look at today wrote powerful and memorable hymns that gave wonderful comfort though coming from intense tragedy and loss. These two men, Horatio Spafford, and Philip Bliss collaborated to write the words and music of one of our most loved hymns, “It is well with my soul”
Horatio Spafford was a successful lawyer and real estate investor living in Chicago in the 1800’s. He and his wife, Anna, were close supporters of Dwight L. Moody, the famous evangelist headquartered in Chicago. The Spaffords had 4 daughters and a son named Horatio Jr. The first tragedy to befall them was the death of their son at age 4 of Scarlet Fever (1870). A year later, in 1871, the great Chicago fire killed hundreds and left more than 90,000 homeless. Spafford had invested heavily in Chicago properties that literally went up in smoke. Still he and his wife focused on helping out others who had suffered loss in the fire.
The Spaffords decided to take a break from all that had happened so they planned a vacation to Europe. Just before leaving for New York to sail to Europe, Horatio was detained by business dealings, and decided to send Anna and the 4 girls on promising to join them as soon as possible. The French ship they were travelling on, “Ville de Havre” was struck by another ship near the middle of their journey and sunk in only 12 minutes. All four daughters died, but Anna was found alive and unconscious hanging to a broken spar that was floating adrift. Of the 307 passengers 226 drowned leaving about 90 passengers and crew to be rescued. Another survivor, Pastor Weiss, quoted Anna as saying, “God gave me 4 daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Some day I will understand why.”
When Anna reached Cardiff she wired her husband the following message dated Dec. 1, 1873: “Saved alone. What shall I do? Mrs. Goodwin, children, Willie Culver lost. Upon receiving the wire, Horatio sought passage on the next available ship to join his grieving wife and bring her home. On that voyage, the ships captain summond Horatio to inform him that according to his coordinates they were passing over the exact spot where his daughters had drowned. Heartsick, Spafford returned to his cabin and with pen in hand poured out his heart to God.
When Peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
What ever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
In ways that only the Lord can do, the Holy Spirit begin to minister peace and strength to his troubled soul. In reading these lyrics you can see his faith taking wings and the reality of the Lord’s presence even in his pain. Writing to his wife’s sister while on the ship, he wrote, “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.”
The Spaffords had three other children, two of whom, Bertha and Grace, survived. In 1881 they moved to Jerusalem and established what became known as the “American Colony,” a mission to the poor which did much outreach during World War I. Horatio Spafford died of malaria in Jerusalem on Oct. 16, 1888, just four days short of his 60th birthday. Before he died Horatio wrote “I rely exclusively, exclusively on the power and grace of God in Christ. I am a miracle of grace! Blessed God, how patient thou hast been with me!”
Philip P. Bliss
Though Horatio Spafford was the one who penned the words to “It is well with my soul” the one who provided the melody to go with it was an acquaintance of his named Philip Paul Bliss who also supported the work of D.L. Moody and lived his life as a hymn writer and Gospel singer working in evangelistic crusades of D.L. Moody and Major Daniel Whittle.
Born in Rome, Pa. in 1838, Philip was brought up by poor but devoted Christian parents who gave him a tremendous love for music. At age 11 he left home to make a living for himself. He spent the next 5 years working in logging and lumber camps and sawmills. Having a strong physique and looking older than his age he was able to do many things as well as adults. At age 12 he was baptized by a Christian church minister and later he joined a Baptist church in Cherry Flats, Pa. Between jobs at the lumber camp he attended school and also got a musical education as well. He also began to participate in Methodist camp meetings and revival services. At age 17 he went to Bedford City, Pa and finished his requirements for teaching credentials. The following year he was the new schoolmaster at Hartsville, N.Y. In 1857 he met J.G. Towner who conducted a vocal school in Towanda, Pa. and recognized that Philip had an unusually wonderful and mellow singing voice so he gave him formal vocal training. He made it possible for him to go to a musical convention in Rome, Pa where he met William Bradbury, a noted composer of sacred music. (next weeks sermon hymnwriter). He talked Bliss into surrendering himself to the service of the Lord. He also discovered his ability to write music. His first composition was sent to George F. Root, a music publisher, with a strange request, “If you think this song is worth anything, I would appreciate having a flute in exchange for it.” He received his flute.