The Stories Behind Your Favorite Hymns

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” I’m sure we all recognize these lyrics and could even recite the next line, but have we ever stopped to wonder how this famous song came to be? What about “It is Well with My Soul” or any of the other powerful praises we have sung again and again? Every song we sing, every hymnal tune we worship through has an incredible story behind it. 

The stories behind these songs bring them to life, adding context and meaning while helping us to understand, relate, and feel in a deeper way. To all who open their hearts to hear, these stories will evoke passion and emotion. The history behind these famous hymnals has spread a message of truth and light over countless years.

It is well

Built around a series of tragedies in the life of Horatio Spafford, “It is Well with My Soul” was written with a tremendous amount of emotion and profound faith. Horatio, a successful lawyer in 1871 was first struck with misfortune when a great fire demolished all of his real estate investment properties in downtown Chicago. Three years later, while finishing up business, Horatio sent his wife and four daughters off to sea for a family vacation. The ship they were traveling on, the S.S. Ville Du Havre, sunk not long after, killing all four of Spafford’s daughters. Three years later, yet another unfortunate event came about in Horatio’s life. After his wife gave birth to a fifth child, the baby lived to be only four before dying of scarlet fever. These mark only a few of the horrific tragedies that invaded the life of Horatio Spafford. In the late 1800s, it was Phillip P. Bliss who put Horatio’s story into song. Soon after, he first sang the hymn before an assembly of ministers in Chicago. The meaning behind this well-known tune reminds us that amidst the trials, pain, and suffering of life, there is hope. There is hope because God is greater than our problems and has overcome this world. When our faith is tested by tragedy and sorrow, resting in Christ brings a renewed peace, renewed vision, and a deep rest to our soul.

Amazing grace

“Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most famous song ever created, was written by a former atheist and slave owner: John Newton. Although he was raised around Christian values, Newton ventured down a path of his own, eventually becoming deeply involved in the slave trade. After trafficking thousands of men, women, and children from Africa to auction blocks for years, Newton encountered a life-changing moment that not only transformed his way of living, but history all throughout the world.

While on one of his trips to auction off his slaves, Newton was faced with a violent storm that threatened to sink his ship. Out of options and utterly helpless, he fell to his knees begging God to have mercy on both his ship and himself. Later that night, after miraculously being spared from the storm, Newton could not help but realize that there absolutely is a God who both hears and answers prayers from those who are wholly seeking him.
After going through this experience, Newton eventually became a preacher and began writing hymns. He longed to compose something that would speak to his congregation; something that would speak of God’s mercy so that his congregation could experience the same type of amazing grace that Newton had been shown. In 1772, Newton wrote a hymn called “Faith’s Review and Expectation” which we all now know as “Amazing Grace.” The hymn taps more into a grand understanding of God’s redemption by sending his only son, Jesus, to die on the cross to, “save a wretch like me.”

The extent of grace

Such a simply-written song has lifted the heads of the hopeless and softened hearts of the hardened. “Amazing Grace” was sung by both sides of the Civil War and used as a requiem by the Cherokee Indians on the Trail of Tears. When civil rights were a heated topic in the United States, “Amazing Grace” was sung during freedom marches and also when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream speech.

This hymn shows how God’s simple acts of grace towards a single individual can not only change that individual’s life but the entire world. The historic hymn of “Amazing Grace” has done exactly that. It is essential that each one of us remember that every day we are blessed with on this earth is another chance at life and more importantly, a tremendous act of God’s amazing grace.

Tori Sollars is a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University. She can be reached at tori_sollars@pba.edu.

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