"The Lord is my strength and my song." (Psalm 118:14)
By Bishop Robert Hayes Jr.
Many of you know how much I love the great hymns of our faith. In my prayers, devotionals, and sermons, I use the words of my favorite hymns so much that I’ve developed what I call a hymn-prayer. I shape a chant in which a hymn becomes my prayer. I started doing this years ago, to remember the melodies I sang as a child and as a young pastor.
On a deeper level, I am endeared to these because of the life-changing stories that produced the songs. If you know the origins of these tunes, you fall in love with them.
Today I want to share with you what inspired two of our faith’s great anthems. When you learn how these songs came to be written, you, too, never again will sing them the same way.
The first hymn is:
"It Is Well With My Soul"
The words and music of this treasured hymn were born in tragedy. Horatio Spafford (1828-1888) suffered tremendous loss.
Spafford, a 43-year-old Chicago businessman, and his wife were grieving the death of their 4-year-old son when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 ruined them financially. Sensing the need for the family to get away, Spafford sent his wife and four daughters to England, and his intent was to follow as soon as possible. His family boarded the S.S. Ville de Havre, one of the largest ships of that time.
Halfway across the Atlantic, the ship was rammed by an English iron sailing vessel. Within 12 minutes, 226 people drowned, including all of Spafford’s daughters. Once ashore at Cardiff, Wales, Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, "Saved alone."
Four days later, Spafford boarded a ship to join his wife in England. In the mid-Atlantic on a cold December night, 1873, the captain pointed out the spot where the tragedy had occurred and Spafford’s daughters had been lost. In the dark of that night, his heart heavy with grief and pain, yet surging with faith and hope, Spafford wrote these words:
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.
Three years later, Philip Paul Bliss wrote the music for this hymn. It was November 1876. Only days after submitting his work to the publisher, Bliss and his wife were killed in a train crash in Ashtabula, Ohio. Witnesses reported that Bliss could have escaped but chose to die by the side of his wife, who was caught in the burning wreckage.
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.
(No. 377, UM Hymnal)
The second great hymn is:
"Great Is Thy Faithfulness"
Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960), a former Methodist minister, wrote the words to this hymn in 1923. He was born in a log cabin in Franklin, Ky., and educated in a country school. Although he lived to age 94, his life was full of setbacks, including long-term poor health.
At age 21, Chisholm became associate editor of a weekly newspaper, The Franklin Favorite. In 1893 he became a Christian under the ministry of Dr. Henry Clay Morrison, who later became president of Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky. Through the persuasion of Morrison, Chisholm moved to Louisville and became editor of The Pentecostal Herald.
He was ordained a Methodist minister in 1903 and served a brief pastorate in Scottsville, Ky. Yet he was unable to continue after a year of service because he was too fragile to fulfill his duties. He and his wife moved to a farm near Winona Lake, Ind., where he began writing sacred poems and short stories.
Chisholm received more than his share of rejection letters. Even when his works were published, he seldom received money for them. He tried his hand at selling insurance, earning barely enough income to survive.
Hoping for a better life, he and his wife moved to Vineland, N.J., in 1916. And there, in spite of all his disappointments, Chisholm was inspired to write "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." When asked why he wrote the hymn, considering all his difficulties, Chisholm responded, "I wanted to write about God’s faithfulness throughout my life!" He wrote some 1,200 poems during his lifetime.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not,
thy compassions, they fail not;
as thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided;
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
(No. 140, UM Hymnal)