H.G. Spafford was a force in Chicago in the early 1870s. He was a wealthy, senior partner in a major law firm, a real estate developer, and a devout elder in his Presbyterian Church. He and his wife Anna loved to entertain guests in their comfortable home, and they became friends and supporters of the world-famous Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody. They were the parents of a son and four daughters.
In 1870, their four-year-old son, Horatio, Junior, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then in October of 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago and the city’s north side, where Mr. Spafford was heavily invested in a real estate development. The immense blaze cost over 300 lives and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. Even though their entire investment was gone, and being close to ruin financially themselves, the Spaffords nevertheless continued to demonstrate Christian hospitality, showing the love of Jesus in the face of tragedy.
Two years later, in 1873, Horatio and his wife decided they would take their four daughters and go to Europe for a lengthy visit. Even though his business interests had been hit hard in the national Financial Panic of 1873, Horatio and Anna intended to help their friend, Evangelist D.L. Moody, who was then planning an extended evangelistic crusade in England. The family booked space on the steamship SS Ville du Havre, but last-minute business complications forced Horatio to remain in Chicago. The plan then was for Anna and the four daughters – 11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta – to go on, and Mr. Spafford would join them as soon as he could.
On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship, the freighter Loch Earn. The passenger ship sank in only 12 minutes, and 226 people died in the disaster – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived, but miraculously, one of those rescued was Anna Spafford. She was found unconscious, floating on a piece of timber. She would later tell a fellow survivor, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” When the rescued passengers reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent a telegram back to her husband that read, “Saved alone.”
Horatio booked passage to rejoin his devasted wife. A few days later, as they were on their way across the Atlantic, the captain of the vessel summoned Mr. Spafford to the bridge and told him, “We are now passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down.” Mr. Spafford went back to his cabin and began to think of his four young daughters, dying in those cold waters, three miles deep. And then he began to write,
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. It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul), It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Later, when American hymnist Philip P. Bliss wrote a melody for Mr. Spafford’s words, he named the tune after the ill-fated liner, calling it “Ville du Havre.” It was first published in 1876. Personally, I particularly appreciate the verse that says –
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!
The hymn, of course, is still sung to this day, and we continue to hear Mr. Spafford’s testimony through its message, so let me respectfully suggest something. The next time you sing this song, take a moment and reflect on Horatio and Anna Spafford. Remember the tragedy they suffered, then give thanks to God who has used their incredible faith in such a beautiful way over the years, to create a hymn that gives us such a powerful testimony. May we be encouraged, and may our faith be strengthened, so that we can join in and affirm with them, from our hearts: It is well with my soul.