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Notes on "It Is Well"

This month, our pastor used Sunday evenings to preach a series covering the broad, overarching metanarrative of Scripture.  Titled “The Epic Story,” he moved in four services through Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation (listen).  For congregational hymns prior to the last message, I chose “Come, We that Love the Lord” (speaking of our present experience of heavenly blessings) and “Jesus Shall Reign” (looking forward to the time when “thy kingdom come” will be a reality).  After the message, we sang “It Is Well” as a hymn of response, focusing on the last stanza (“And Lord, haste the day . . .”).  The story behind this well-beloved hymn is well-known and needs no rehearsing here, but I would like to make several observations about the hymn itself.

First, although the first draft and first publication of the song did so), the hymn has gained two more stanzas over time:1

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 blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

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!

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

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But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessèd hope, blessèd rest of my soul!

And Lord, haste the day when the 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.

Second, the third stanza should be punctuated, “My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought — My sin — not in part, but the whole . . .”  Some editions of the song print the first line as “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!”, which grammatically suggests that the glorious thought is of ”my sin” itself, not the removal of its penalty!  When I lead the song congregationally, I try to vocally mark this punctuation by pausing after the first “My sin” and after “glorious thought”, then singing the next line through without a break: “My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross…”

Third, the last stanza contains two enigmatic words, “even so”.  When singing the song from memory in church one evening, it seemed to me that the words “even so” provided an odd contrast: Jesus will return, but even given his impending return (“even so”), my soul still rests content.  Initially, I thought that the point might be a contented soul in spite of the fact that Jesus has not yet returned.  The answer lies elsewhere, though.  Correct editions of “It Is Well” will follow the original edition by enclosing “even so” in quotation marks, as above.  The quotation marks are a tipoff that Spafford is quoting Scripture, and given the context,  he is almost certainly quoting from Revelation 22:20 (KJV): “He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.”  In light of this passage, the connection of the two enigmatic words becomes much clearer.

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About Chuck Bumgardner

I seek to be a student of the Scriptures — New Testament in particular — and also have a deep love for the praise of God through music in the church. I have at the present time the privilege of overseeing the music and leading the singing in my local church, a ministry which brings me great joy and provides a God-ordained outlet for my musical energies. I've enjoyed serving in music-related areas in the church since high school — some 25 years now — as a vocalist, choir member, choir director, and congregational songleader. In addition to serving as a member — and for a time as an assistant pastor — in various local churches, I've also had the privilege of traveling during my college years to many churches throughout the United States and Canada as part of a vocal ensemble. I hunger to see, both in my own church and beyond, an increased appreciation for the great historic music of the church in which theologically rich texts are wedded to music which provides an appropriate setting for those texts, and through which our affections are turned toward God. I'm also eager to see new contributions to the rich heritage of Christian music which share in the same characteristics.

  1. In the original post, I said, “First, although hymnals nearly universally use the same four stanzas (and even the first publication of the song did so), the original composition actually consisted of six.”  But further research has proved this statement to be incorrect; the original apparently did only have 4 stanzas. []

3 Responses to Notes on "It Is Well"

  1. Any idea where the 6 stanza version actually comes from? It has been noted that the original draft was only four stanzas and his daughter recounted how a fifth (the 4th in order) was later added and the final line changed (both prior the Gospel Hymns No. 2 publication). But no mention is made of the stanza in the fifth position.

    Spafford did not wirte any other hymns, nor a bulk of poetry, so i've not found any publication by him which includes a definitive 6-stanza version – so when / where did the other two stanzas appear?

    thanks

    – m.

  2. m,

    I'm afraid I am unable to help you with your question at the present time. I have corrected the blog post based on further research I did to attempt to respond to your question, indicating a four-stanza original. I'm not sure what source I was referencing when I stated that the original text had six stanzas, for the manuscript copy (with which I had been unfamiliar) clearly only has four. Perhaps I was assuming an original six because hymns typically lose stanzas (to fit more comfortably into hymnals) more often than they gain them.

    Thanks for prompting me to look into the matter.

    CB

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