Note: The following was originally printed in the January/February 2021 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Many of the hymns Christians sing have not only a deep doctrinal connection to our faith, but many also come with an historical background that give the words special meaning to us as believers. Take, for instance, the song “Amazing Grace” written by John Newton. Known as “the great blasphemer,” Newton was born to a sea-caption father and a Puritan mother. Unfortunately, his mother died shortly before his seventh birthday, greatly limiting the Christian influence she desired to instill in her son.
At the age of eleven, his father took him on his first sea-voyage. During the next several years, his ill-gotten behavior got him into a lot of trouble, though he recalled times in his life when God acted mercifully towards him when he didn’t feel ready to give God his due devotion and service. His experience on a ship led him to be involved in the slave trade. He made four voyages delivering men and women to lives of bondage, but it was a fierce storm on March 10, 1748, while sailing back to England, that Newton described as “a day much to be remembered by me; and I have never allowed it to pass unnoticed since the year 1748. For on that day the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of deep waters.” Though not immediately convicted of his repugnant profession, he later wrote, “It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
His famous hymn extols the work of God in his life that he knew he did not deserve. His tombstone reads, “John Newton, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy!”
Another Christian hymn with a rich history behind it is a song written by Horatio Spafford titled “It is Well With My Soul.” In the November 17, 2020 edition of the LDS Church News, editor Sarah Jane Weaver recounted a visit made by LDS President Russell M. Nelson and his wife Wendy, to Paradise, California following the devastating fire of November 2018. Nelson addressed a congregation in Chico, California. Weaver gave a brief highlight of his talk when he mentioned Presbyterian hymn-writer Horatio Gates Spafford. Said Weaver,
President Nelson recounted the story of Horatio Spafford, a real estate investor who lost a fortune in the great Chicago fire of 1871. After his 4-year-old son died of scarlet fever, Horatio sent his wife and four daughters to England, thinking a vacation would do the family good. Before he could join them, however, Horatio received word from his wife that the ship had sunk and claimed their daughters. “Saved alone,” she wrote. “What shall I do?” President Nelson said Horatio immediately set sail for England. As he passed over the spot where the shipwreck had occurred, he wrote down the words of comfort and hope that filled his mind. Those words became the text for the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Weaver went on to write that, after Nelson finished his talk, “the choir performed the hymn with a special addition — a concluding verse written by his wife, Sister Wendy Nelson, for the congregation.” Mrs. Nelson’s additional verse to this beautiful hymn is troubling because her insertion completely perverts the intent of Spafford’s thoughts at the time of his tragedy. Wendy Nelson’s added verse is as follows:
“My future is bright, as my covenants I keep.
My covenants with God give me power
To rise from the ashes and grief of the past,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”
Wendy Nelson’s understanding of covenant keeping is not unusual in Mormon circles but unfortunately her alteration to Spafford’s hymn completely ignores and even contradicts what he was trying to convey. The key to a bright future can never be realized by keeping covenants. Spafford believed that “Christ had regarded [his] helpless estate” and “shed His own blood for [his] soul.” Man’s helpless estate highlights his inability to add anything towards his salvation. Even if he did, certainly any effort would be tainted by an individual’s fallen nature. Such efforts could never provide what the blood of Christ provides.
Spafford saw his personal forgiveness of sin as a single, cleansing act that was performed “not in part but the whole.” In a reference to Colossians 2:14, Spafford “no more” bore the burden of his sin, because Christ canceled the record of his debt that stood against him with its legal demands. Christ did this for him, as he does for all of His people, by “nailing it to the cross.”
How tragic that a hymn written to honor the all-sufficient work of Christ, and the comfort it gives, could be dishonored by paying homage to the efforts of sinful humans.