If you have been a Christian for any length of time, or even if you haven’t, you have probably heard or sung the hymn It Is Well With My Soul. The words for this hymn were penned in 1873 by Horatio G. Spafford in the midst of horrible tragedy.
These are the original lyrics to the song:
It Is Well With My Soul
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,a
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.
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,
A song in the night, oh my soul! b
a “know” (at the end of the third line) was changed to “say”.
b “A song in the night, oh my soul” (last line)
was changed to “Even so, it is well with my soul”.
Horatio Spafford was a successful lawyer and business man in Chicago and was influential in the local church. He invested in real estate and nearly lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
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.
However, Horatio ended up attending to business matters in Chicago while his wife and four remaining children (they previously lost a son due to scarlett fever) went ahead to England. On the voyage across the Atlantic, their ship was struck and sank.
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.
The Spaffords went on to have three more children, but again lost a son to scarlett fever. The relocated to Jerusalem, where they established a Christian community to share the love of Christ there.
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 Lagerlõf wrote of this colony of Christians in her two volume Nobel Prize winning work “Jerusalem.”
They remained in Jerusalem for the rest of their days.
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.”
This story bears the marks of the trial and tragedy we face in this world, and yet the hope and endurance that indwells us in Christ.
Whatever you are facing, do not allow the swells of emotion to toss you about. Emotions are certainly real and need to be experienced and dealt with. For the Christian, however, our peace, rest, faith, hope, and love resiliently abide in and radiate out from Christ’s Spirit in us.
When “sorrows like sea billows roll”, may you look to Jesus and say, “it is well with my soul”.
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