Following great tragedy, father inspired to pen famous hymn

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 18, 2011

An attorney with a successful legal practice invested heavily in real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Within a few months, his investments were wiped out by the Chicago Fire of 1871.

A friend of evangelical leaders of his day such as D. L. Moody, the businessman was described as a man of unusual intelligence, deeply spiritual, and a devoted student of the Scriptures.

Following the destructive fire, he decided that his family needed some rest.

They also wanted to participate in D. L. Moody’s preaching itinerary in England.  So he arranged passage on an ocean liner in November 1873.

Unexpect-ed last minute business developments forced him to remain in Chicago.  His wife and four daughters went on ahead.  He scheduled passage on another ship leaving a few days later.

On Nov. 2, the ship on which his wife and daughters were sailing was struck by an English vessel and sank in 12 minutes, claiming the lives of 226 on board.   According to published reports, “Anna Spafford had stood bravely on the deck, with her daughters – Annie, Maggie, Bessie and Tanetta – clinging desperately to her. Her last memory had been of her baby being torn violently from her arms by the force of the waters.”

Her life was spared because a plank floating in the ocean propped up her unconscious body.  Several days later, the survivors landed at Cardiff, Wales and Anna sent her husband a cable that read, “Saved alone. What shall I do.”

The businessman, Horatio Spafford, set sail to join his grief-stricken wife.

The following account comes from the Library of Congress, “On the Atlantic crossing, the captain of his ship called Horatio to his cabin to tell him that they were passing over the spot where his four daughters had perished. He wrote to Rachel, his wife’s half-sister, ‘On Thursday last, we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the water’s three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there.’”

This father’s faith assured him his children were with the Lord.  After he passed over their watery grave, Horatio then returned to his cabin and wrote the lyrics of his great hymn we still sing today.

“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!”

How could a father whose four daughters perished pen a hymn with a message of hope? Humanly speaking, it would be impossible. But Horatio Spafford experienced God’s promise in Isaiah 26:3,

“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.”