Stories of a Hymn and a Spiritual

It Is Well With My Soul

Horatio G. Spafford was a successful attorney in Chicago, the father of four daughters, an active member of the Presbyterian Church and a loyal friend and supporter of D. L. Moody.

When Moody and his music associate, Ira Sankey, left for Great Britain for an evangelistic campaign, Spafford planned a family vacation to Europe so he could assist in the Moody-Sankey meetings there.

In November 1873, Spafford, detained by urgent business, sent his family as scheduled on the SS Ville du Harve, planning to join them soon. Halfway across the Atlantic, the ship was struck by an English vessel and sank in 12 minutes. Though his wife was miraculously saved, all of Spafford's daughters drowned.

Later, Spafford stood hour after hour on the deck of the ship carrying him to rejoin his sorrowing wife in Cardiff, Wales. When the ship passed the approximate place where his precious daughters had drowned, Spafford received sustaining comfort from God that enabled him to write the words of this hymn: "When sorrows like sea billows roll...It is well with my soul.”

Adapted from Kenneth W. Osbeck by Paul Lee Tan ©Bible Communications, Inc. []

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

In the early 19th century, African Americans met in camp meetings and sang without any hymnbooks. Songs called “spiritual songs” were composed on the spot.

These “spirituals” are Christian songs with Biblical themes. The meanings of these songs, however, were often covert so that even at work slaves could sing secret messages. The codes of the first spirituals are often related with an escape to a free country. For example, a “home” is a safe place where everyone can live free. So, “home” can mean heaven, but it covertly means a sweet and free country, a haven for slaves.

The ways used by fugitives running to a free country were riding a “chariot” or a “train." The spirituals “The Gospel Train” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization that helped many slaves flee.

The words of “The Gospel Train,” “she is coming…get onboard…there’s room for many more," are a direct call to go away.

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” refers to Ripley, a station of the Underground Railroad where fugitive slaves were welcome. This town is atop a hill by the Ohio River. To reach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. The words of this spiritual say, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see/ Coming for to carry me home/ A band of angels coming after me.” A band of angels would be these helpers taking with them those who were fleeing slavery in the South.


May 01, 2004 / Did You Know?