It was well with his soul despite tragedies

Published 12:02 am Saturday, April 18, 2015

Horatio Spafford, 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 Dwight L. Moody, Spafford 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 and to participate in Dwight L. Moody’s preaching itinerary in England. So he arranged passage on an ocean liner in November 1873.

Unexpected 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 November 2, the ship on which his wife and daughters were sailing was struck by an English vessel and sank in twelve minutes, claiming the lives of 226 on board. His wife’s life was spared because a plank floating in the ocean propped up her unconscious body. Several days later, the survivors landed at Cardiff, Wales. Anna sent her husband a cable that read, “Saved alone. What shall I do.” He set sail to join his grief-stricken wife.

The following account of his voyage 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….’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.’”

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, which 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!”

After returning to Chicago, the Spaffords had two more children – a daughter and a son. Tragedy struck again when their son died of scarlet fever at age three. Six months after the birth of another daughter, the family traveled to Jerusalem, arriving in 1881. They established the “American Colony,” that operated a soup kitchen during World War I and later a Children’s Hospital with 60 beds. The Spafford Children’s Center still serves the families of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Spafford died of malaria four days before his 60th birthday in 1888 and is buried in Mt. Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem. How could a father who experienced such tragedy pen a hymn with a message of hope? Humanly speaking, it would be impossible. But Horatio Spafford experienced God’s promise found in Isaiah 26:3, “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.”

– Jan White is an award-winning columnist. She can be reached at