There are discouraging and even tragic events in life where one’s faith is tested and stretched to breaking points. The story of Horatio Spafford is a painful example of one that yet encourages us today with the story behind the authoring of the famous hymn, It is Well With My Soul. ♦
It’s a hauntingly beautiful song. The words themselves with its simple and recurring refrain will move you. The tune will stay in your head long after you hear it. Way before my wife told me it was her favorite hymn, and well before I learned the heart-wrenching story behind its composition, I’ve loved the song It is Well With My Soul for its simple and melodic message of resignation to God’s sovereignty, regardless of one’s plight.
Knowing the full story behind it poignantly drives home the point.
By all measurements, Horatio Spafford was a fortunate and blessed man. He was a wealthy lawyer and businessman with substantial real estate holdings in downtown Chicago during booming growth years of the post-Civil War era. He had a lovely family including four young daughters and a newborn son which brought him great joy and comfort.
He was a man whose great Christian faith helped him appreciate the times of worldly blessings, but also steeled him against the times of misfortune and personal tragedy.
“Whatever my lot…”
In April of 1871 the Great Chicago Fire consumed Spafford’s real estate holdings. He took comfort in the fact that his family had escaped the fire. His loss was cushioned by a deep belief in the sovereign hand of God. He and his wife were friends of Dwight L. Moody, the famous evangelist, and had supported several of his crusades. His faith helped him work through his financial setback. It is said that he lost his life savings.
“Tho’ trials should come…”
At the same time the Spaffords lost their only son from scarlet fever. Seeking respite for his whole family, in 1873 he purchased 6 tickets for passage to Europe. He was to assist Moody with his next evangelistic campaign. While overseas they would not only be able to share the love of Christ but be able to visit the Holy Land. Their ultimate destination was Jerusalem.
Just before the ship left for Europe, business issues involving Chicago real estate delayed Horatio’s own departure. He put his wife and four daughters on the Ville du Havre and planned to follow his family over the Atlantic in a few days.
“When sorrows like sea billows roll…”
Days later Spafford awoke to a horrible headline in the papers. The Villa de Havre had been struck by another ship in the mid-Atlantic and sunk in 12 minutes. 226 people were drowned at sea. Spafford received a telegram from his wife that simply stated: “Saved. Alone. What shall I do?”
Spafford boarded the next ship for Europe. The words of a poem that was forming in his head were on his heart as he passed over the watery grave of his four daughters.
Here is the text of the poem that he wrote mid-way across the Atlantic:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
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!
In the years that followed Spafford and his wife made their permanent home in Jerusalem, where they were blessed with a second family of three more children.
Were their lives ever the same? Did they ever really have full joy again? We don’t know. It’s not necessarily a happy ending to a tragic story. It’s merely a life like many that got struck with a terrible series of sorrows. The lesson is in the perspective – one that acknowledges and submits to a higher, sovereign God even in the midst of those sorrows. And while often no answers ever become clear in this lifetime, understanding the larger story – that we live in a fallen, broken world that will someday be restored in full newness and life as originally intended – can still bring peace and wellness to your soul.
No matter what, is it well with your soul?
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:37-39