Fig. 1. Ira Sankey, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns (1906).
Careful observers will note that the hymn was written in 1876, in Chicago, not in 1874 while Spafford was on the ocean, although the sentiment of the hymn, “It is well; the will of God be done,” was expressed when they met D.L. Moody after the fateful voyage.
The first line of the text evokes Isaiah 66:12 (“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream”), and the first stanza in general is rich with seafaring language. The second stanza broadens the scope to include spiritual warfare, and the third offers the solution to all spiritual failures, found in the cross. The fourth looks forward to eternal deliverance and borrows images from passages such as the coming of the Lord in Revelation 19, or especially the description in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.”
Tune. The reverent tune, VILLE DU HAVRE, named after the sunken ship, was written by Sankey’s colleague Philip Bliss (1838-1876). This pairing was first published in Gospel Hymns No. 2 (1876 | Fig. 2). Bliss’ tune has an austerity and compositional prowess not often found in gospel tunes of the era. One distinctive feature of the partwriting is the frequent use of contrary motion between the melody and bass line. This skillful setting has probably helped the hymn achieve its endurance and public devotion.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
5 July 2018
“When peace, like a river,” at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson, “When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“It is well with my soul,” Spafford Hymn, Kosinski Studio:
“The American Colony in Jerusalem: Family Tragedy,” Library of Congress: