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Horatio G. Spafford: The Story Behind the Hymn "It is Well with My Soul"

"Saved Alone. What Shall I Do..."

In the late 1860s life was good for Horatio G. Spafford and his wife Anna. They were living in a north side suburb of Chicago with their five children, Annie, Maggie, Bessie, Tanetta and Horatio, Jr. He had a successful law practice in Chicago. The doors of the Spaffords' home were always open as a place for activists to meet during the reform movements of the time. Horatio G. Spafford was quite active in the abolitionist movement. Frances E. Willard, president of the National Women's Christian Temperance Union as well as evangelical leaders like Dwight L. Moody were often guests in their home. Spafford was a Presbyterian church elder and a dedicated Christian.

Until now Horatio and Anna Spafford had led a charmed life. They had everything going their way. However, in 1870 their faith was tested by tragedy. Their four year old son, Horatio, Jr., died of scarlet fever. The Spaffords were devastated. In October of 1871 when the Great Chicago Fire broke out Horatio faced another test of his faith. A few months before the Great Chicago Fire, Spafford being a wealthy man, had invested much of his wealth in real estate by the shore of Lake Michigan. Not only did the Great Chicago Fire destroy most of Chicago but most of Spafford's holdings were destroyed. 250 people died in the Great Chicago Fire and 90,000 were left homeless.

The Spaffords did not despair. Their home had been spared and they had their family. God had been good. Even though their finances were mostly depleted, Anna and Horatio used what resources they had left to feed the hungry, help the homeless, care for the sick and injured and comfort their grief stricken neighbors. The Great Chicago Fire was a great American tragedy; the Spaffords used it to show the love of the Christ to those in need.
In 1873 Anna Spafford's health was failing and hoping to put behind the tragic loss of their son and the fire and to benefit Anna's health, the Spaffords planned a trip to Europe. They would sail on the French steamer Ville du Havre to Europe with their four daughters. Spafford not only wanted to visit Europe but he wanted to assist Evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey in a revival they were conducting in England.

Moody and Sankey had met at a convention of the Young Men's Christian Association in Indianapolis in 1870. After hearing Sankey sing, Moody at once invited him to come to Chicago and assist him in his evangelist work there. Ira D. Sankey considered Moody's invitation and after much thought and prayer, decided to accept. Six months later he joined Moody in Chicago.

Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey were in the middle of a revival meeting when the Great Chicago Fire broke out in 1871. Moody and Sankey barely escaped Chicago with their lives. It is said that Sankey was on a row boat a long distance out in Lake Michigan where he watched as Chicago burned. With most of Chicago having been destroyed, Moody and Sankey decided to accept an invitation to visit England. In 1873 Moody and Sankey started a work in England. Moody and Sankey made such a profound impression in England their names became household words all over Europe.

The Spaffords planed to leave in November on their voyage to Europe. As sometimes happens, God had other plans for Horatio G. Spafford. The day they were to sail for Europe Spafford had a business emergency and could not leave. Not wanting to disappoint his wife Anna and their daughters he sent them on ahead and planned to follow on another ship in a few days. Accompanying Anna Spafford were her French governess, Emma Lorriaux, several friends and several ministers.

On November 22, 1873 the steamer Ville du Havre was struck by a British iron sailing ship, the Lockhearn. The steamer Ville du Havre, with Anna Spafford and her daughters aboard, sank within twelve minutes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Only 81 of the 307 passengers and crew members survived this tragic shipwreck.

Even though the Lockhearn was in danger of sinking the unconscious Anna Spafford was picked up from floating debris by the crew of the Lockhearn. An American cargo sailing vessel, the Trimountain, arrived in time to save the survivors of the Ville du Havre and the Lockhearn. Anna Spafford was taken to Cardiff, Wales where she telegraphed her husband Horatio. Anna's cable was brief and heartbreaking, "Saved alone. What shall I do..." Horatio and Anna's four daughters had drowned. As soon as he received Anna's telegram, Horatio left Chicago without delay to bring his wife home. Sailing across the Atlantic Ocean the captain of the ship called Horatio to the bridge. He informed Horatio that "A careful reckoning has been made and I believe we are now passing the place where the Ville du Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep." That night, alone in his cabin Horatio G. Spafford penned the words to his famous hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul." Horatio's faith in God never faltered. He later wrote Anna's half-sister, "On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs."

The following account is taken from the Christian History Institute.

"Anna Spafford later spoke of being sucked violently downward. Baby Tanetta was torn from her arms by a collision with some heavy debris, with a blow so violent that Anna's arm was severely bruised. She flailed at the water trying to catch her baby. Anna caught Tanetta's gown for just a moment before another smashing blow tore the little girl out of her arms forever. Reaching out again, all she could find was a man's leg in corduroy trousers. Anna, barely conscious, was then swirled about in a whirlpool before surfacing near the Loch Earn. She instinctively clung on to a small plank and the next thing she recalled was the splash of an oar as she lay at the bottom of a small boat. Bruised and sick, her long hair was matted with salt and her dressing gown shredded. But the pain in her body was nothing compared to the pain in her heart as she realized that her four daughters had been lost in the disaster. A young male passenger, afloat on a piece of wood, came upon Maggie and Annie, the two oldest Spafford children. At his direction, each girl grasped one of his side pockets as he tried to find a board large enough to support all three of them. After about 30 or 40 minutes in the water, he found a piece of wreckage and struggled to help the two young girls climb atop the board. But as he watched, their weary arms weakened, and he saw their eyes close. Their lifeless forms floated away from his own fatigue-paralyzed arms. No clues ever surfaced about the fate of little Bessie."

After Anna was rescued, Pastor Nathaniel Weiss, one of the ministers traveling with Anna and Horatio's group remembered hearing Anna say, "God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why." Anna was utterly devastated. Many of the survivors watched Anna closely, fearing she may try to take her life. In her grief and despair, Anna heard a soft voice speaking to her, "You were saved for a purpose!" It was then Anna remembered something a friend had once said, "It's easy to be grateful and good when you have so much, but take care that you are not a fair-weather friend to God."

Following their reunion in Europe, Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago to begin their lives again. God blessed Anna and Horatio with three children. They had a son in 1876, again called "Horatio." Not so much for his father but for their lost son. In 1878 their daughter Bertha was born. Tragically, when little Horatio reached the age of 4 just as his brother before him, he died from scarlet fever. In 1880 Anna and Horatio had another daughter they called Grace. After the loss of little Horatio, the Spaffords decided to leave their home in America and settle in Jerusalem. In September of 1881 the Spaffords and a few of their friends left America for Israel.

The group settled in the old part of Jerusalem and started a work which later became known as the "American Colony." There they served the needy, helped the poor, cared for the sick and took in homeless children. Their only cause was to show those living about them the love of Jesus. Swedish novelist Selma Ottiliana Lovisa Lagerl§f wrote of this colony of Christians in her two volume Nobel Prize winning work "Jerusalem."

A Christian historian wrote of Anna and Horatio: "Moved by a series of profound tragic losses, Chicago natives Anna and Horatio Spafford led a small American contingent in 1881 to Jerusalem to form a Christian utopian society known as the 'American Colony.'"

Bertha Spafford Vester, wrote the following in her book "Our Jerusalem."
"In Chicago, Father searched his life for explanation. Until now, it had flowed gently as a river. Spiritual peace and worldly security had sustained his early years, his family life and his home....... All around  him people were asking the unvoiced question; 'What guilt had brought this sweeping tragedy to Anna and Hoaratio Spafford?'.... Father became convinced that God was kind and that he would see his children again in heaven. This thought calmed his heart, but it was to bring Father into open conflict with what was then the Christian world.... To Father, this was a passing through the "valley of the shadow of death," but his faith came through triumphant and strong. On the high seas, near the place where his children perished, he wrote the hymn that was to give comfort to so many:"

It Is Well With My Soul

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, 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 hath shed His own blood for my soul.
(refrain)

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!
(refrain)

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

It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

In 1876 P.P. Bliss put Horatio Spafford's words to music. This hymn is still sung in Protestant churches today. "It Is Well With My Soul" was first sung in public by P.P. Bliss on November 24, 1876 before an assembly of ministers hosted by Dwight L. Moody in Chicago's Farewell Hall. Ironically, one month later, P.P. Bliss and his wife were killed in a horrific train wreck. It is believed that Horatio took the words "It is well" from the words of the Shunammite woman who lost her only son but was later raised from the dead by Elisha. (II Kings 4:26 )

Horatio G. Spafford was born on October 20, 1828 in Lansingburgh, New York and died of Malaria on October 16, 1888 in Jerusalem. Anna Spafford continued to work in the surrounding areas of Jerusalem until her death in 1923. The Spaffords were laid to eternal rest in Jerusalem. It can be said that "It Is Well With Their Souls."