As I was reading through Third John, the brief New Testament Book that will be the focus of this week’s Pressure Cooker sermon series, I was surprised to find a very familiar phrase from one of our most reassuring hymns:

Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. (3 John 2)

The hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” expresses the calm confidence we can experience in the face of the harshest hardships that may threaten to overwhelm us. When I dug into the background, I discovered two fascinating things.

First, contrary to my assumption that the familiar line of the hymn came from this Scripture, it appears to be the other way around. I was unable to find any English translation of the verse that uses this language previous to the 1946 Revised Standard Version, but the words of the hymn were written decades earlier, in 1878. It seems that the RSV translators liked the hymn’s poetic phrase so much they used it to express what the King James Version had translated as “thy soul prospereth,” with other versions using similar phrases. “It is well” — that’s so simple and comforting.

The second thing I discovered was that the origin of the hymn offers a great lesson to people like us who live in Pressure Cooker times. Horatio Gates Spafford was a Chicago lawyer and land speculator who did quite well in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also an elder in a prominent Chicago church and a personal friend of Evangelist Dwight L. Moody. He married well, and he and his wife Anna had four daughters. Spafford had it all.

And then, he didn’t! The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out most of his properties and his personal wealth. Two years later, he decided the family needed a healing European vacation. He sent Anna and the girls ahead on a ship, while he stayed behind to handle some of the remaining legal issues from the fire. Their ship never arrived at its English port; it collided with another vessel on the high seas, and 226 lives were lost, including the four Spafford daughters. The cryptic telegram Horatio received from Anna said simply: “Saved alone.” The grieving Spafford boarded the next available ship to join his wife in England. It was during this hard journey that he wrote the awesome lyrics:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blessed assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

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

In researching this, I was happy to learn that the Spaffords had a creative and effective ministry during the last chapter of their lives. They had three more children, and though the son died as a toddler of scarlet fever, their two daughters lived to carry on their ministry and legacy. In 1878, the family and a group of visionary friends moved to Jerusalem to plant the American Colony, which was established on the belief that the Christian Church’s primary calling was to relieve suffering and hardship wherever they found it. They embraced Jews and Muslims in their utopian community, without trying to convert them. They believed their inclusive interfaith fellowship was a harbinger of Jesus’ second coming, which they thought would be soon. Their open-ended ministry was criticized by many traditional Christian groups, but the Colony continued to touch the lives of refugees and other hurting people in the Middle East throughout the First World War and on into the 1940s. One of their buildings exists today as the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, serving travellers from around the world.

I believe the Spaffords’ late-life ministry, including the American Colony which continued to embrace the needy for another half-century after they died, is a result of the fact that they were well-done in the Pressure Cooker of their personal tragedy. The Spaffords and their followers spent the rest of their lives trying to live out John’s challenge:

Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul.

– Pastor George Van Alstine

* One of the Spafford daughters later added to the lyrics. Well-known evangelist/musician P.P. Bliss provided the music.