Can you imagine everything in your life going well? You’re happily married, have five beautiful children, at the pinnacle of your career and you’ve even managed to squirrel away enough money to provide for your family’s every want and need. Under circumstances like that, it’s easy to say ‘it is well with my soul.’
But what if tragedy struck? Not once, but multiple times. What if your golden life, your ticket to easy street, was taken away in the blink of an eye, at no cause of your own?
That is exactly what happened to Horatio Spafford, the man who wrote one of the most soul-stirring hymns in the Christian hymnal, “It Is Well with My Soul.”
Horatio Spafford was a successful lawyer in Chicago who had invested heavily in real estate along the shores of Lake Michigan. Horatio was a prosperous man, a devoted husband and father, and a devout Christian. But in 1870, a series of events began to turn his life inside out.
Horatio and Anna’s only son, Horatio Jr., died of Scarlet Fever at the tender age of four. The following year, while still mourning the loss of their son, every single one of Horatio’s investments were lost in the Great Chicago fire.
A few years later, aware of the toll these events had taken on his wife and four daughters, Horatio decided to take the family on a holiday to England where they would accompany his friend, the famous evangelist D. L. Moody, on his next crusade. Shortly before they were to set sail, a last minute business development threatened to derail the trip. Horatio persuaded his wife to go ahead saying he would follow along shortly.
In November 1873, Anna and the girls boarded the French ship, Ville du Havre. Four days into their trans-Atlantic journey, Horatio received the devastating news that the Ville du Havre had collided with the Lock Earn, an iron-hulled vessel. The Ville du Havre sunk in 12 minutes taking with her the lives of 226 of her passengers. It was the worst disaster in naval history until the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic forty years later.
Several days later when the survivors had reached Cardiff, Wales, Spafford received a brief, six word telegram from his wife: Saved alone. What shall I do?
As soon as possible, Horatio boarded a ship to join his grieving wife. En route to England, the captain called him to the bridge and said “a careful reckoning has been made, and I believe we are now passing the very area where the Ville du Havre sunk.” According to Bertha Spafford Vester, a daughter born after the tragedy, her father wrote “It Is Well With My Soul” while on this journey.
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
Horatio and Anna’s faith in God never faltered. He later wrote to 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….. dear lambs”.
Naturally Anna was utterly devastated, but she testified that in her grief and despair, she had been conscious of a soft voice speaking to her, “You were saved for a purpose!” She 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.”
It’s incredible to think such encouraging and uplifting words were born from the depths of such unimaginable sorrow. It’s an example of truly inspiring faith and trust in the Lord. Perhaps that’s why this hymn, like no other, demonstrates the power our God has to comfort our weary souls when the darkest tragedies overtake us.