In our small community here, in Arizona City, my husband Frank and I actively participate in our non-denominational worship services each Sunday. Frank assists with providing music and I contribute by putting the applicable hymn lyrics up on a large TV Screen. Recently, I had the opportunity to do a bit of research about one of our favorite hymns: “It is well with my soul.” In this month’s article, I’m sharing a bit of what I learned.
This much loved hymn was written by a Chicago lawyer, Horatio G. Spafford. We might assume that writing a worship song with this title would be written when the composer’s life was calm and content. But the words, “When sorrows like sea billows roll … It is well with my soul”, were not written during the happiest period of Spafford’s life. On the contrary, they came from a man who had suffered almost unimaginable personal tragedy.
Horatio G. Spafford and his wife, Anna, were well-known in 1860’s Chicago. And this was not just because of Horatio’s legal career and business endeavors. The Spaffords were also prominent supporters and close friends of D.L. Moody, the famous preacher. In 1870, however, things started to go wrong. Scarlet fever took their young son who was only four years old. A year later, it was fire that struck. Horatio had invested heavily in real estate on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1871, every one of these holdings was reduced to ashes by the great Chicago Fire.
Two years later, in 1873, Spafford decided his family should take a holiday somewhere in Europe, and chose England knowing Moody would be preaching there in the fall. Yet just before they set sail, a last-minute business development forced Horatio to delay. Not wanting to ruin the family holiday, he sent his family ahead: his wife and their four children, daughters eleven-year-old Anna “Annie”, nine-year-old Margaret Lee “Maggie”, five-year-old Elizabeth “Bessie”, and two-year-old Tanetta. Swafford would follow, later.
The Spaffords traveled to New York in November, from where they were to catch the French steamer ‘Ville de Havre’ across the Atlantic.
On November 2nd 1873, the ‘Ville de Havre’ had collided with ‘The Loch Earn’, an English vessel. It sank in only 12 minutes, claiming the lives of 226 people. Anna Spafford had stood bravely on the deck, with her daughters clinging desperately to her. Her last memory had been of her baby being torn violently from her arms by the force of the waters. Anna was only saved from the fate of her daughters by a plank which floated beneath her unconscious body and propped her up.
A sailor, rowing a small boat over the spot where the ship went down, spotted a woman floating on a piece of the wreckage. It was Anna, still alive. He pulled her into the boat and they were picked up by another large vessel which, nine days later, landed them in Cardiff, Wales. From there she wired her husband a message which began, “Saved alone, what shall I do?” Mr. Spafford later framed the telegram and placed it in his office.
When the survivors of the wreck had been rescued, Mrs. Spafford’s first reaction was one of complete despair. Then she heard a voice speak to her, “You were spared for a purpose.” And she immediately recalled the words of a friend, “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.”
Upon hearing the terrible news, Horatio Spafford boarded the next ship out of New York to join his bereaved wife. Bertha Spafford (the fifth daughter of Horatio and Anna born later) explained that during her father’s voyage, the captain of the ship had called him to the bridge. “A careful reckoning has been made”, he said, “and I believe we are now passing the place where the de Havre was wrecked. The water is three miles deep.” Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn.
The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her,” she still maintains that ‘It is well.” And Spafford’s song reveals a man whose trust in the Lord is as unwavering as hers was.
No matter what circumstances overtake us may we be able to say with Horatio Spafford:
“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.
“Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul!
“It is well … with my soul!
It is well; it is well, with my soul.”
After the ordeal at sea, Anna and Horatio Spafford became religious outsiders. They left their Presbyterian congregation and held faith-based prayer meetings in their own home. Their sect was nicknamed “the Overcomers” by American press. In August 1881, the Spaffords set out for Jerusalem as a party of thirteen adults and three children and set up the American Colony. Colony members, later joined by Swedish Christians, engaged in philanthropic work amongst the people of Jerusalem regardless of their religious affiliation and without proselytizing motives—thereby gaining the trust of the local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities. During and immediately after World War I, the American Colony played a critical role in supporting these communities through the great suffering and deprivations of the eastern front by running soup kitchens, hospitals, orphanages and other charitable ventures.
Four days before his 60th birthday, Spafford died on October 16, 1888, of malaria, and was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery, Jerusalem.
Sources: www.wikipedia.com; www.stagustine.com