Saturday, November 22, 2008

If Jordan Above Me Shall Roll

Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the Ville du Havre in 1873, a passenger steamship traveling from New York to England, an event commemorated by a well-loved hymn.

Horatio G. Spafford was a successful attorney in Chicago, but the Great Fire of 1871 wiped out his real estate investments and brought hardship to his family: his wife Anna, and his four daughters. In 1873 the family planned to travel to England, but a last minute business commitment caused Spafford to stay behind and send his family on alone. During the early morning hours of November 22, their vessel, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another ship and sank within 12 munutes. Two hundred twenty-eight people perished in the accident, including all four Spafford daughters: Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta. Anna Spafford miraculously survived, and sent a telegram to her husband: "Saved alone."

Spafford sailed to join his wife in England, and along the way the captain of his ship pointed out to him the place where the Ville du Havre had gone down. Later on the voyage, he wrote this hymn.

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 (it is well)
With my soul, (with my soul),
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 has shed precious 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!

And God, haste the day when our faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Christ shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Horatio G. Spafford, 1873; alt.
Philip P. Bliss, 1876

Spafford's inspiration might have come from 2 Kings 4:8-37, the story of a Shunammite woman who, following the death of her son, is still able to say "it is well." There are two more verses which are usually left out of hymnals:

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.

But, Christ, ‘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!

The second of these verses is probably considered too similar to the last verse and therefore superfluous. The first, with the line "If Jordan above me shall roll" may have been considered a bit too intense, considering the origin of the hymn (though I thought it a good title for today's post).

Philip P. Bliss wrote the music for Spafford's hymn, naming it after the doomed ship. Tragically, Bliss died soon after in a train collision.


Dorothy said...

What a sad, sad story goes with that hymn! Actually, two sad stories...Spafford's and tune writer Philip Bliss's as well.

Bernadette said...

What is the meaning of "If Jordan above me shall roll?

C.W.S. said...

Welcome, Bernadette! Jordan refers to the river Jordan; biblically, between life and death. Under or in the Jordan (sometimes across) means having died.

It is a sad story, but what a triumphant hymn!