In the late 1860’s Horatio and Anna Spafford lived in Chicago with their five children, Annie, Maggie, Bessie, Tanetta and Horatio Jr. Mr. Spafford was a dedicated Christian and elder in the Presbyterian church. He was involved in the abolitionist movement of the day and had personal relationships with many evangelical leaders including Dwight L. Moody. The Spaffords were quite wealthy due to Horatio’s successful law practice and real estate investments. Then a series of Job-like events touched the family severely.
In 1870 four year old Horatio Jr. died of scarlet fever. In 1871 the great Chicago fire destroyed the Spafford’s real estate holding and much of their wealth. Even so, those who knew the family were moved by the Spafford’s persevering faith and ongoing ministries. Ministries which now included tending to every kind of need their neighbors had as a result of the fire. In 1873 a trip to Europe was planned mostly to help Anna’s failing health. At the last minute Horatio could not go. Rather than disappoint Anna and the girls he sent them on with plans to follow on another ship soon after.
More tragedy awaited.
On November 22, 1873 the ship carrying Anna and the girls was struck by another vessel in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Twelve minutes later the ship sank. Less than one hundred of the over three hundred souls aboard survived. Anna held young Tanetta in her arms as the water swirled her around. Then she was hit hard by debris and Tanetta disappeared. Annie and Maggie were helped to a floating board by a young man. He watched helplessly as their eyes closed and they drifted away. Bessie perished as well. Only Anna Spafford was saved. She sent a telegram to Horatio that said – “Saved alone. What shall I do…”
Sailing across the Atlantic to bring Anna home Horatio was called to the bridge. The captain informed him that they were passing over the place where the wreck and sinking had occurred. In his cabin late that night Horatio Spafford would write one of the greatest hymns ever penned.
His song in the night, borne from the depths of loss, poured out on the altar of sorrow, and raised up to the Lord with relentless faith has ministered to millions of people. “It Is Well with My Soul” is a majestic ode with a grand eternal view of life that swallows up the loss of our today in the glory of His tomorrow.
Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago and had three more children. A boy named after his deceased brother, Horatio, and two daughters, Bertha and Grace. Again, scarlet fever took their second son at age four just as it had their first. The Spafford’s then moved to Jerusalem and started a Christian ministry there helping the poor, the sick, and the homeless. It was said that their only cause was to show those living about them the love of Jesus.
Bertha Spafford would later write of her father’s faith through all the trials: “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.”
Many years ago there was written a song in the night:
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 has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
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!
For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life,
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.
But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.
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.