Behind the Song Sunday—It Is Well With My Soul

Imagine all of your children were dead?  Would you still be able to praise God?  That is just the beginning of the story behind It Is Well with my Soul.

This was not the first, nor the last, tragedy endured by the author, Horatio Gates Spafford.

Horatio Spafford

Horatio Spafford

The beginning of their suffering began in 1871.  In 1870, Horatio Spafford and his wife, Anna, were living comfortably with their four daughters and son.  Mr. Spafford, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, was a prosperous senior partner in a thriving, large law firm and decided to invest heavily in the growing Chicago real estate market.  He put most of his wealth in holdings along the shore of Lake Michigan.

In 1871, their four year old son died of scarlet fever.

Everything was lost later that year in the Great Fire of Chicago, devastating an entire city and the family.  The city was reduced to ashes and destroyed most of the Spafford’s numerous investments.  250 people perished in the fire, but the greatest tragedy came in the 90,000 left homeless.  The Spaffords home was spared, but they used the little resources left to feed the hungry, care for the sick and help the homeless.  The family used this tragedy to show the love of Christ to the hurting.

The Spafford’s were friends and supporters of the evangelist, D. L. Moody, who had barely escaped the Chicago fire and watched the city burn from a boat in the middle of Lake Michigan. Rev. Moody was preaching in England two years after the fire.  The Spafford’s decided to travel to Europe for vacation.  Horatio felt the extended stay in Europe would benefit his wife’s health. While there, the Spafford’s planned to assist Moody and Sankey with their London revival.  At the last minute, Horatio Spafford was detained in Chicago for real estate business.  His wife and daughter preceded with their travel plans.

Anna and the girls boarded the French steamship S. S. Ville du Havre in November 1873, to cross the Atlantic Ocean. With Anna on her trip were 11-year-old, Tanetta; 9-year-old, Elizabeth; 5-year-old, Margaret Lee; and 2-year-old, Annie.  A nanny and several friends were also reportedly travelling with the women.  de Villa du Havre

On November 22, the steamship was struck by “an iron sailing vessel,” the British ship Lochearn, and sunk within twelve minutes.  Anna was found floating unconscious on a floating spar, from which she was rescued.  Sadly, all four of the daughters perished. Anna was one of the 81 of 307 passengers and crew that survived the tragic shipwreck.

The following account is taken from the Christian History Institute:

Anna Spafford

Anna Spafford

A fellow survivor of the collision, Pastor Weiss, recalled Anna saying, “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.”

A fellow survivor of the collision, Pastor Weiss, recalled Anna saying, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.”

Nine days after the tragedy, Anna arrived in Wales and cabled Horatio with the news.  Her cable said in part, “Saved alone. What shall I do…”  Anna was utterly devastated.  Anna heard a voice say, “You were saved for a purpose.”  She remembered a friend telling her not to be a fair weathered friend to God and just grateful in the good times.

4 lost daughters

4 daughters that died in tragedy

One can only imagine how heartbroken Horatio was on receiving this terrible news.  Immediately after receiving the cable, he left to bring his wife home.  While sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the Captain called Horatio onto 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 Spafford, wrote the words to It Is Well with My Soul.  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 belief is that the words of the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4, were his inspiration for this hymn.

Horatio Spafford Jr               Following what can only have been an emotional reunion, Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago.  In 1876, they were blessed with a son, Horatio Jr, in 1878 a daughter Bertha was born and in 1880, their last child, Grace was born.  Sadly six weeks later, Horatio Jr died at four years of age from scarlet fever. Their church regarded this tragedy as “divine punishment.”

In August 1881, the Spafford’s and a handful of friends traveled to Jerusalem where they set up the American Colony.  Horatio said “Jerusalem is where my Lord lived, suffered, and conquered, and I wish to learn how to live, suffer, and especially to conquer.”

Their daughter, Bertha, wrote in her book “Our Jerusalem:”  Bertha Spafford Vester

“In Chicago, Father searched his life for explanation. Until now, it had flowed gently as a river…All around him people were asking the unvoiced question; ‘What guilt had brought this sweeping tragedy to Anna and Hoaratio Spafford?’…. Father became convinced that God was kind and that he would see his children again in heaven… 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.”  

Later what is now the fourth verse was added to the manuscript and Spafford’s daughter stated the last line was slightly modified.

Horatio Spafford contracted what the family described as “malaria fever which caused mental confusion” while in Jerusalem and died four days shy of his 60th birthday on October 16, 1888.  Anna continued her work in Jerusalem until her death in 1923.

Phillip P. Bliss

Philip P. Bliss

Sadly, more tragedy surrounded the hymn than just with the Spafford family.

In 1876, Philip Paul Bliss, the American composer, put the words to music.  He named the tune, Ville du Havre, after the ship on which the Spafford daughter’s died.  He performed the song for the first time on November 24, 1876 at an assembly of ministers hosted by Dwight L. Moody.

One month later, on December 29, 1876, Philip Bliss and his wife were traveling by train to Chicago.  The bridge collapsed on the trestle near Ashtabula, Ohio and the passenger coach plunged 75 feet into the icy river.

Philip was able to escape through a window, but his wife was pinned in the wreckage. As he went back to free his wife, a fire broke out through the wooden cars. Some eyewitness reports reported hearing a couple singing It is well with my soul as the fire began to spread.  No trace of either body was ever found.  They were both burned beyond recognition. The couple left behind two young sons.

Tragedy surrounded this hymn in these nine deaths, however through all of the affliction and pain, Horatio Spafford, was able to say “It is well with my soul.”

When faced with trials in life, can you say “It is well with my soul?”



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 say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

(Refrain:) 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 hath 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 His 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 pain shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.

And Lord haste the day, when the 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.

 It Is Well


Tragedy inspired the Story behind the Song of It Is Well with my Soul

Can you say It Is Well with my Soul in the face of considerable tragedy?  The Story behind the Song





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