It’s a hymn that the faithful start singing whenever a Baptist church organist plays the opening chords -- because everyone knows it by heart.
All together now: “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.”
Chicago attorney Horatio Spafford wrote those words after losing his son to scarlet fever and then, a few years later, all four of his daughters in an 1873 shipwreck. His wife, Anna, survived, and her telegram home from England began: “Saved alone. What shall I do?”
No one should be surprised that worship leaders frequently turned to “It Is Well With My Soul” as their people wrestled with the coronavirus pandemic, said the Rev. Roger O’Neel, who teaches in the worship and music program at Cedarville University in Ohio.
“People were feeling their way in 2020,” he said. “It wasn’t just the pandemic and people being locked down, worshipping in (online) streamed services. We were also facing all the bitter political conflicts in our nation and the racial divisions that we were experiencing. ... People were trying to find hymns that would speak to all of that, to the pain that everyone felt last year.”
Faithlife, a Bellingham, Washington, company that publishes online worship and Bible study tools, recently released a report covering 2020 trends spotted in its Proclaim software. “It Is Well With My Soul” topped the hymns list, with usage increasing 68% after the pandemic hit.
The classic hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” came next, with a 64% increase. It begins: “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! ... Morning by morning, new mercies I see; all I have needed, Thy hand hath provided -- great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”
In contemporary music, the unofficial pandemic anthem was “Way Maker,” by Osinachi Kalu Okoro Egbu of Nigeria, a Pentecostal songwriter known as Sinach in America. This hit topped charts in Christian radio and was No. 1 in the Faithlife “worship songs” list, along with the year’s rankings with Christian Copyright Licensing International. Christianity Today noted that “Way Maker” was sung by many marchers calling for racial justice.
It’s easy, agreed O’Neel, to see how these lyrics spoke to millions in 2020: “You wipe away all tears, you mend the broken heart. You are the answer to it all, Jesus. ... Way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, Light in the darkness -- my God, that is who you are.”
For centuries, hymn writers and pastors have wrestled with sobering questions linked to the theological term “theodicy.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines theodicy as a “vindication of God’s goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.”
There was no way to avoid dealing with that in 2020.
“I don’t want to debate the theological intricacies as to whether God is allowing the virus or caused the virus, but I do know that He is in control,” wrote O’Neel in an online essay for clergy and students, posted early in the pandemic. “I don’t want to presume to know what He is doing in allowing this in our lives and in the lives of people all around the world. ...
“Perhaps God is making us lay down for some rest or spiritual renewal,” he continued. “If so, embrace the rest. Don’t spend too much time thinking about what you are missing, worrying about the virus or economy. ... Maybe your Shepherd is making you lie down.” Now, many worship leaders are contemplating what they have learned after months away from sanctuaries packed with worshippers belting out Christian-rock anthems, hands raised high in the air.
“We’ve joked that some people had to learn how to do church without their smoke machines,” said O’Neel, referring to the clouds of mist that make lighting more dramatic in some modern sanctuaries. “We want to get back to normal, but what is ‘normal’? One guitar or one piano? When will we have a full band? When will we reach the stage where choirs return?
“We all had to pause this year and ask questions about how we worship.”
(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)