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The True Stories Behind Five Classic Church Songs

In 1966, Bob Dylan told a journalist that he’d written a ten-page rant and had no intentions of doing anything with it. “I had never thought of it as a song,” he said. “Until one day I was at the piano, and on the paper it was singing.” He started singing along with it and the song became “Like a Rolling Stone.”

That’s how songs happen. Little thoughts and scribbles that start singing and before you know it, you’ve got a full-blown song on your hands. Worship music is the same way. Prayers, Psalms and journal entries have led to worship songs. So have life experiences — some inspiring, some tragic, some strange — but all led to songs that are now sung all over the world. Here are a few favorites.

It Is Well With My Soul

One of the most famous origin stories for a hymn of all time started with a fire. Horatio Spafford was a wealthy Chicago lawyer who sunk much of his fortune into real estate. That seemed like a good idea in the then-burgeoning city, but it meant he lost almost everything he had in the Great Chicago Fire. Two years later, he and his wife planned to take their four daughters to England to hear the preaching of Spafford’s friend, the famed evangelist D.L. Moody. Spafford’s wife and four daughters sailed ahead separately, and their steamship sank killing 226 people, all four Spafford girls among them: Annie, 12; Maggie, 7; Bessie, 4; and an infant. His wife Anna sent him a tragic telegraph from England: “Saved Alone.”

Spafford sailed to England to join his wife and the ship’s captain alerted him when they were near the approximate spot where his daughters had drowned. There, he penned the words that have been a source of comfort for millions of grieving souls ever since: “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 with my soul.”

Were You There?

The actual origins of this beloved spiritual remain unknown. In his 1899 book Old Plantation Hymns, author William E. Barton notes that he heard it while traveling in the South and believed that it originated as a slave spiritual, pre-dating the Civil War. Barton was so moved by the tune that he recorded it in his book, and the song has now been covered by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Johnny Cash.

Holy, Holy, Holy

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At the start of the 19th Century, the Anglican Church officially disapproved of singing hymns, which was seen as crass, low art. But Reginald Heber, parish priest at the Hodnet rectory, was a secret fan of hymns by the likes of John Newton and wrote dozens of them. He asked for permission to publish them and the Archbishop of Canterbury sent a wishy-washy reply that Heber interpreted as a “yes.” However, he had to put his artistic aspirations on hold when he was summoned to Calcutta where he remained bishop until his death and became a fierce critic of racism against Indian people he saw there. After his death, his secret stash of hymns was discovered and, among them, a brief tune called, simply: “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

Jesus Loves Me

Susan Warner was a novelist in need of a fictional poem to be read to a dying child in one of her stories. She turned to her sister, Anna, who was a poet, and asked her to write something simple and comforting. Anna came up with “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” The poem ended up being a hit, and the sisters taught to children during their stint as West Point Academy Sunday School teachers. One of their students? A little Texan kid named Dwight D. Eisenhower.

How Great Is Our God

Some of the stories on this list are good. Some are sad. And some are …bizarre. “How Great Is Our God” is one of the most popular church songs of the modern era, but it also helped found what many are calling a cult. The song’s co-writer Ed Cash became a follower of Wayne Jolley, leader of a small group called the Gathering International with a history of alleged spiritual and sexual abuse.

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