Today I’m going to share the story behind the words of It Is Well, one of the most famous hymns in the world. I hope you like it…and think about all the blessings God has given you. 🙂
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.
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.”
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.
You know this makes me think that, even though everything in our life can be taken away from us, God is still there right beside us. And when we are in sorrows, we can say with Horatio, It is well, with my soul. Things may not always go right, but we know that God is right there beside us.