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2 Corinthians 1:3-1:7

It is well with my Soul:

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.
While teaching in an academy in Rome, Pa. he met a fine young lady named Lucy Young, a poet from a musical family, who encouraged him to develop his musical talents. She was an earnest member of a Presbyterian church which he soon joined. Not quite 21, on June 1st 1859 he married Lucy and then went to work on his father-in-law’s farm for $13 a month while he continued to study music. He continued training and then became a full time traveling music teacher. He wrote his forst song, “Loral Vale,” and had it published in 1865.
In the summer of 1869 Bliss went in to listen to D.L. Moody preach at a revival meeting, and learned that Moody’s singer was not available. Philip got Moody’s attention and offered his services as a singer and song leader. Moody took advantage of the offer and asked him to help out with Sunday evening meetings when ever he could. He further urged him to give up his business and become a singing evangelist. About this time he also met Major Daniel Whittle while helping out Moody, and Whittle recommended the young men to the position of choir director at the First Congregational Church in Chicago. The Bliss family moved into an apartment that was part of the Whittle home, and while living there he wrote two of his most famous hymns: Hold the Fort, and Jesus Loves Even Me. Bliss also assumed the additional task of Sunday School Superintendent at the same church which lasted 3 years until his busy schedule made it impossible to continue working for the church.
Again, Moody urged Bliss to go into full time evangelism, and both he and Major Whittle considered the proposal by conducting an evangelistic meeting. The meetings were so successful in terms of conversions, that they both dedicated themselves to full time evangelism, and the team of Whittle and Bliss was born. Bliss compiled a book of gospel songs (including his own compositions) to be used during the revival meetings entitled, “Gospel songs” It was so successful he received $30,000 in royalties which he turned over to Tuttle for crusade expenses. He also collaborated with Ira Sankey (Moody’s song leader) to create a book of songs called “Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs.”
On Friday Nov 24, 1876, Bliss sang at a minister’s meeting conducted by D.L. Moody with over 1,000 preachers present. He introduced a new song he had just written music for, “It is well with my soul.” Little did he know that in only a month’s time he would be singing his songs with the angels in heaven.
The Bliss family (now with two sons, George age 4 and Philip Paul, age 1) spent the Christmas holidays with family in Rome, Pa. and made plans to return to Chicago to work with Moody in January. However, Moody sent a telegram asking Bliss to return early so he could take part in meetings advertised for the Sunday following Christmas. Bliss decided to return with his wife to Chicago but to leave the boys with their grandmother. On Dec. 29, 1876, the train, the Pacific Express with Mr. and Mrs. Bliss on board struggled through a blinding snow storm, already three hours late, the train crossed a trestle bridge spanning a river near Ashtabula, Ohio. The lead engine, made it across the bridge, but then the rest of the train plunged 75 feet into the ravine and into the icy water below, the heaters in the wooden cars caused a fire killing most of the passengers. Mr. Bliss extricated himself from the car by climbing out a window, but went back inside to try to free his wife who was trapped under some twisted metal. He was unable to free her and stayed with her until they both perished. Of the 160 passengers on the train only 14 survived and the bodies were so badly burned there was no way to identify who was who among the ashen corpses.
The Trunk belonging to the Blisses had been sent on ahead on another train and arrived safely in Chicago. When opened it was found that the last song he had written before his death began as follows: “I know not what awaits me. God kindly veils my eyes…” The trunk contained many hymn poems he had not yet written music for. One of those was “My Redeemer” which became world famous after James McGranahan added music to Bliss’s poem. McGrahahan, age 36, at the time of Bliss’s death was so moved by the tragedy, that he decided to dedicate himself to a lifetime of evangelism and succeeded Bliss as Whittle’s evangelistic singer.
Though the stories swirling around this beloved hymn tell of tragedy and loss, the comfort that shines from this beloved hymn reveals that God has the ability to transform tragedy into powerful comfort and blessing. We are reminded of Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NIV)
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.
7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
Conclusion: Given the opportunity to make a choice, not a one of us would ever choose the crucible of suffering, tragedy, or loss, but Paul had learned from what he suffered, that it is God himself who comforts us in our troubles and passes on to us and through us the ministry of comfort thus enabling us to become comforters of others. In the midst of Horatio Spafford’s pain and loss, came the resonant song that has comforted millions of believers through the years. How a man can write, through the tears of his own loss, “It is well with my soul,” is a testimony to the powerful comfort God’s holy spirit can bring even in the middle of a hard moment in life. No one would wish for the tragedy Spafford suffered, or the loss of life that ended Philip Bliss’s ministry for the Lord, but the testimony of those two lives gives a practical underpinning to the powerful words of the song they wrote together. “What ever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”

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