Wednesday, July 10, 2013

When Peace Like a River

Here is another hymn! It is hard to believe, but it has already been a year since this whole idea began. I am thankful for everyone of you who have taken the time to read these posts! Thank you so much for your support. This blog has grown beyond what I could have expected it to, and I hope and pray that it will continue to grow! God is good!

Title: When Peace Like a River

Tune: Ville du Havre

Meter: with refrain

Composer: Phillip Bliss (9th July, 1838- 29th December, 1876)

Author: Horatio G. Spafford (20th October, 1828-16th October 1888)

The hymn “When Peace Like a River” is one that is shrouded with tragedy and dark times, but the every present reminder within the text helps the congregation to remember that God will take care of us. Originally published in 1876, this hymn has been published with the tune “Ville du Havre,” composed by Phillip Bliss almost exclusively. The hymn made its first debut in Gospel Hymns No. 2 which was compiled by Ira Sankey and Phillip Bliss, both who were good family friends with Horatio Spafford. The origin of this hymn dates only three years prior to the actual publication of it, and shows us that God has a plan for each and every one of us, and sometimes, tragedy can strike when we least expect it.

Horatio Spafford was born in New York, but would eventually move to Chicago in 1856. While he was in Chicago, Spafford became a Lawyer and professor of medical Jurisprudence at Lind University, which is better known today as Chicago Medical College (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 651.) Though he was busy with his day job, Spafford made sure that he was an active Presbyterian Lay person. Spafford taught Sunday school, was a director and trustee for the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, and was also an employee for the YMCA. As Spafford's life moved forward, he would soon see his fair share of tragedies. Prior to 1871, Spafford had placed all of his money and more in real estate in the area of what is now known as Lincoln Park off of the shore of Lake Michigan. Of course, in 1871, the Great Chicago fire wiped out all of his investment, leaving him with little money. Shortly after the fire, in 1873, Spafford was advised by doctors that he take his family over to Europe to benefit the health of his wife (Spafford's wife born in Norway in 1842, and came with her family to Chicago when she was four, and Minnesota when she was seven). Only a short time before his departure, Spafford was called away on some pressing business, and sent his wife and his four daughters ahead of him, as scheduled. The liner that the family was on, the Ville Du Havre, was hit bu a British ship. The Lochearn, on November 22nd, 1873, and it took only twelve short minutes for the entire ship to be sunk. All four of Spafford's daughters died in the accident, but his wife was spared.

After this tragedy, Spafford and his wife gave birth to three more children, a daughter, Bertha, a son, Horatio and another daughter Grace (1881). Horatio was born in 1876, and Bertha, in 1878, but both children contracted scarlet fever. Bertha was able to survive the fever, but Horatio was not able to. Bertha is responsible for the retelling of several of Spafford's stories. The story of where this text comes from is proof that God exists, and that he has a hand in all of our lives. While traveling over to Europe to meet his wife, Spafford is said to have penned the text near to the spot where the accident had happened, and his four daughters had perished. After having dealt with such tragedy, life didn't seem to get any better for Spafford. After returning to his Church, Spafford ran into troubles with his own congregation. In one of the weaker moments of the church, Spafford's own congregation denied him. The first misunderstanding came when a member of an evangelical group came to meet with the Spaffords in their own house, and offered to adopt Bertha, opening a wound in the family. From this first incident, the family began planning a move to Jerusalem. After planning a move, the misunderstanding continued for Spafford. Spafford “shocked the complacent” when he said that he could not believe that babies were consigned to hell (Westermeyer, p. 652). After the newspaper got a hold of this story, the Spaffords were asked to leave the congregation of the Fulerton Avenue Presbyterian Church, the church that Spafford had helped build, where he was an elder, the church in which many of the Spafford's were baptized in as well. Shortly after Spafford's daughter, Grace, was born, the family left for Jerusalem and formed an “American Colony” (Westermeyer, p. 652). The story of the families adventures in Jerusalem were told by Bertha in her book Our Jerusalem, which shows that she had spent quite a bit of time in Jerusalem acting as a “modern Florence Nightingale” (Westermeyer, p. 652).

The tune, “Ville du Havre” is a rather emotional tune, and has several challenges within it. Though the tune has many good qualities, it is not often sang as a congregation, but has rather been taken on as a wonderful setting for choral singing. Though the tune is named after the liner that sank and killed most of Spafford's family, it is also often refereed to as “It is Well,” named after the text. Born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania, Phillip Bliss grew up working on farms and in lumber camps. When he was only twelve years old, Bliss entered in the Baptist church. Eventually, Bliss would marry Lucy J. Young, and worked for her father for a year after he and his wife were first married. Later, after having received training from J.G. Towner and William B. Bradbury, Bliss became an itinerant singing school teacher with a horse and melodeon, in 1860. From that point, for a few summers, Bliss attended the Normal Academy of Music in Geneseo New York, which would eventually lead him to move to Chicago, where he worked with the musician, Doctor George F. Boot, composing Sunday school songs. Bliss published many of his works under the Root and Cady music Company in Chicago, and in 1870, he finally began composing on his own, and was the director of the choir at First Congregational Church in Chicago. In 1874, Bliss joined Major D.W. Whittle as a singing evangelist (Westermeyer, p. 653). In the middle of his career, and in the same year in which this tune was composed, Bliss died in an unfortunate train accident. Both he and his wife were traveling by train through Ohio, when the bridge in Ashtabula collapsed, causing the train to fall nearly seventy feet. It is said that Bliss survived the crash, but was killed when he want back to try and save his wife.

The Text:

  1. When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
    when sorrows like sea billows roll;
    whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well with my soul.

    It is well with my soul,
    it is well, it is well with my soul.

    (2) Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
    let this blest assurance control,
    that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
    and hath shed his own blood for my soul.

    (3) My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
    My sin, not in part but the whole,
    is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
    praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

    (4) And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
    the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
    the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
    even so, it is well with my soul.

My Take on the Hymn:

This hymn is a beautiful hymn for when you are in times of struggle. The text is so reverent to the mercies of Christ, and always reminds us, in every verse, that God and Christ are always with you, and no matter what is happening on earth, give it up to God, and it will be well with your soul. Our lives are riddled with tragedy, whether it be something as small as being late for work, or something as distressing as a loved one passing away. It is no doubt that we are given trials each and every day, but it is important that we keep our love pointed towards God, and that we can let the world pass away to us, and know that God will keep our souls safe and well. If you are looking for a good read about tragedy, and the journey to overcoming grief, I would highly recommend reading C.S. Lewis's “A Grief Observed.” In the book, he makes a good point, that if we keep focused on God, everything will be okay. In times of grief, it is easy to forget that we have someone who has already bore our grief on the cross. Stanza three reminds us that Christ was nailed to the cross so that he would take away our sins and our strife. The last stanza is also important, because even though we suffer daily, when it is our time to go home, God will tear open the skies like a scroll, and the trumpets shall sound and we shall no longer suffer (Rev. 6: 14)!

The Hymn:

If you cannot read music, just start the Youtube video, and follow along!


Psalter, Hymnal Handbook. "When Peace, Like a River." Calving Institute of Christian Worship, n.d. Web. 10 July 2013.

"VILLE DU HAVRE." Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, n.d. Web. 10 July 2013.

Julian, John. "Phillip Paul Bliss." - Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, n.d. Web. 10 July 2013.

Westermeyer, Paul. "Trust, Guidance." Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Vol. 1. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2010. 651-53. Print. 

1 comment:

  1. As a young Christian in the late 70's I remember singing this to a different (modern) tune but I cannot seem to find that tune referenced anywhere on the internet. Does anyone know of it?