It Is Well With My Soul is my favorite song. Not just my favorite hymn, or my favorite worship song, but simply the best piece of music I have ever heard. I love both the music and the lyrics, and recording it has been one of my favorite things to have done. My take on it is quite upbeat (compared to how it is often sung at funerals), which I think is appropriate as I believe the theme to be very hopeful.
This recording features, again, the lead vocals of Jenny Kelly, with background vocals by myself and Laura Sully Davis, who graciously lent her voice to this project. The drums and bass were provided by Studio Pros, and I played the guitars and Hammond. The arrangement is my own, including reverting some of the lyrics back to those of the original poem written by Horatio Spafford, and the vocal harmonies which I have always enjoyed singing.
I first heard the song in, of all places, high school marching band. It was an arrangement entitled, as closely as I can recollect, “On A Hymnsong Of Philip Bliss”. For a song with such great lyrics, it was the music that first inspired and moved me. There is something about how the verses build that just feels inspiring and strong, while the chorus exudes a kind of quite strength. When I found the lyrics, I found that they matched perfectly, and gave substance to the strong emotions the music evoked. Much credit should be given to Philip Bliss for bringing Spafford’s poem to life with so much power.
The theme of the lyrics is the wellness of our souls in times of both great joy and suffering. I believe some people focus primarily on the “suffering” part (a natural inclination, especially given the story around the song), but I think recognizing our wellness during joy is also significant. That is, as Christians, our spiritual health is not dependent on joy or pain. It rests on the faithfulness and provision of Jesus. It is a wholly different axis that is independent of the events and emotions of life. In my view, this really is the entire point of our faith: in a broken world full of sin and pain, that our souls might be healed and rest in the goodness of God, for now and eternity.
There is a version of faith that denies pain and suffering in the world. It sees belief in Christ as a kind of opioid that masks pain with happiness, and manifests itself often as showing joy in the face of trial. While I can certainly appreciate that true faith can bring a supernatural joy at times (and indeed, we see this in scripture), there is a real dark side to making such a response to suffering a prescriptive measure of belief. It is one thing for joy to be granted us in times of trial; it is another to expect joy to always override pain. Yet often, people are told by outsiders to their pain to re-focus away from suffering, as if pain is not allowed to be a part of the Christian experience.
Spafford does ultimately re-focus his view onto Christ and the Cross, but he does so while engaging with the pain. He writes of his own struggle “when sorrows, like sea billows, roll”, and that in the midst of this grief, he knows that it is well with his soul. I really like his choice to write of “wellness”, which speaks to health, rather than euphoria. In the final verses, when he says “A song in the night, o my soul!”, there is an expression of both hope (a song) and current distress (the night). He reminds himself, and us, that pain is not the final word. Our salvation is not a drug that takes away pain, but rather a promise and hope that, in the end, we are, and will be, “well”.
There is much to the story of how and when Spafford wrote the poem that became the song, but the short version is that he wrote it in the place he believed most of his family had perished. He was in real pain when he penned the words, and he placed his hope in the grace of Christ, even as he suffered. But his life did not end with the writing of the poem; in fact, the full story of his life (and that of his wife, Anna) is quite tragic. They lost more children after this event, they were pushed out of a church due to some viewing their repeated tragedies as a form of divine judgment, and in the end, it appears they formed a kind of organization with, at best, cultish tendencies, but also did good through service to others. It is not a perfect ending to their story, but it IS a human one, and it shows their suffering did not end with Horatio putting pen to paper and writing these words, as wonderful as they are.
But, still, I believe, the words hold true. Whatever did happen, whatever pain or joys, it was well for their souls, despite lifelong trauma. And that, really, is the Christian promise. That is certainly the promise I believe: whatever my failures, tragedies, or successes, my soul is well and safe with Christ.
If you are familiar with the song, you will note two lyric changes in my recording. Both of these were reversions back to the original lyrics of the poem. I do not know the story or the reason these lyrics were changed (whether it was for the song when music was added, or some time after), but in both cases I prefer the original
The first change is from “Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say” to “Whatever my lot, thou has taught me to know”. I actually LOVE this, and struggle to understand the motivation to change it. But the wellness that he is talking about is not just something we speak of, but something we know and live out. It is a part of our reality to walk with the knowledge of our souls’ wellbeing. Whenever I sing this song, this line always strikes me as an important, deeply felt knowledge that comes through faith in Christ.
The second change is from the final verse: “The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul” becomes “The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, a song in the night, o my soul”. I have always found the “even so” line a bit confusing following the declaration that Jesus is coming back, but clearly the intent is to recognize we are not there yet. So it means “Even though the Lord has not returned, it is well with my soul”, but I find it confusing while singing. “A song in the night, o my soul” is a better, albeit more poetic, reflection on the hope of the Second Coming of Christ, and how that is part of the wellness that we have: that thought we may be in “the night” at present, one day all things will be made perfect in Jesus.
The music of this song has always moved me, and the lyrics continually speak to me. It is such a real and honest expression of what I believe faith is about; I always walk away from singing it or listening to it feeling blessed. Being able to record my own version of it, which carries my own sense of joy and faith in ultimate “wellness”, remains one of my favorite experiences.